Cannes 2017 review: How To Talk To Girls At Parties (John Cameron Mitchell)

How To Make A Film Without A Budget.

The last time American helmer John Cameron Mitchell hit the Croisette in 2006, his Shortbus was one of the most talked about festival entries, showing in a rowdy midnight slot. After the demure Rabbit Hole in between, Mitchell is back to set the red carpet alight with his latest, the oddly titled How To Talk To Girls At Parties. Ostensibly a punk vs. alien musical, at its heart the film is a relatively conventional rom-com of ‘boy meets girl’ (well, alien), but the infectious enthusiasm that all involved, including A-listers Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman, put into their work, and the go-for-broke attitude of Mitchell when it comes to some of the film’s set pieces, make this campy oddball film one of the feel-good stories of the festival so far.

Enn (Alex Sharp) and his friends John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (A.J. Lewis) desperately try to get into the ’80s British punk scene. In South London’s Croydon of all places, that is. One night, while getting desperately lost on the way to an afterparty, they come upon a big mansion that they mistakenly take for the location of the party. It turns out it is the home of a group of aliens, who for some reason have chosen a South London suburb as their base. Enn meets Zan (Elle Fanning), a rebellious member of one of the six alien factions living in the villa. Zan is curious about the outside world and runs away with Enn, much to the chagrin of her fellow aliens. But Zan wants to learn about ‘the punk’, and before she knows it, she is on the stage of Queen Boadicea (a creatively swearing Kidman), rocking her socks off with Enn. Alas, the alien cult is set to leave our planet, which spells trouble in paradise for the budding human-alien romance.

While Mitchell is American and the two biggest names on the marquee are not British, How To Talk To Girls At Parties feels like a British ’80s rom-com on-the-cheap through and through. The subject matter (the ’80s punk scene) is distinctively British, and most of the main characters are Brits as well (the American Fanning appropriately playing an alien). The film it most shares sensibilities with is probably 2011’s Attack the Block, and it’s not just the South London setting. With its practical effects and low budget showing through, that film too managed to charm an audience with its heart and dedication. A big help for How To Talk To Girls At Parties is the involvement of multi-Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell (also responsible for competition entry Wonderstruck), who created six distinctive and outrageous costumes for the various alien factions, mostly latex designs that give the film a certain queer look. Even if the film at its core is a standard heterosexual relationship comedy (Zan’s alien parts notwithstanding), the film certainly has queer sensibilities, owing in large part to openly gay director Mitchell, whose previous work has often explored sexuality and gender. Here, this is done in strands away from the main plot, but certainly no less prominent.

When it comes to the actors, everybody is game to just go for broke (certainly Kidman, although she and her creative Cockney accent are horribly underused), but it is Fanning who shines, in particular in the scene where she has to give an impromptu punk performance and lets it all out. Fanning’s somewhat unusual facial features fit the role, and her wide-eyed wonder at the ‘real world’ translates well on the screen. Elsewhere, Little Britain’s Matt Lucas has a small but hilarious role as the leader of one of the alien factions.

Does all of it work? Is How To Talk To Girls At Parties actually a good film? To be honest, not really. But it is infectious and has a certain irresistible charm to it. Whatever one may think of the film, one thing is for sure though: South London is infested with aliens, apparently.