This is my first time seeing a new A24 film in quite a while and what a reintroduction it was! For those who are somehow still unfamiliar, A24 is a growing production studio who has quickly made a name and earned a reputation for itself by constantly and consistently chugging out unique, high-quality films that stand out in the marketplace despite being low-budget and often maintaining virtually no advertising budget. They regularly land big stars for their films, such as Annette Bening, Daniel Radcliffe, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and – in the case of the film serving as today’s topic of discussion – Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning. From my personal perspective, A24 stands strong beside Marvel Studios as the most steadily dependable studio working, today, when it comes to creative and quality filmmaking.
And, sometimes, A24 can get downright weird, which is what they’ve done with John Cameron Mitchell’s (Rabbit Hole) How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Of course, “weird” is just an aggressively pejorative way of saying “unique”. Based on Neil Gaiman’s short story of the same name (and, yes, you can keep your eyes peeled for a Neil Gaiman Easter egg), How to Talk to Girls at Parties tells the story of London teenager Enn (Alex Sharp, To the Bone) in the nineteen-seventies. Enn and his friends are big into both the punk and party scenes and while out for a night of fun, the group stumbles upon a party unlike any they’ve encountered before. Upon inspection they find (unbeknownst to themselves) a traveling caravan of humanoid alien colonies with their own mysterious set of goals. (Read that again, if necessary. I’ll wait.). When Enn forms a connection with the alien Zan (Fanning), the two are forced to make choices that they may not quite be prepared to make.
So, as you see, “unique” is not an inappropriate word to use when describing this film’s premise, and the execution only takes the outlandishness up to an eleven. Aesthetically, I was strongly reminded of another Elle Fanning movie, Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2016 film, The Neon Demon. But unlike that horrid disaster painstakingly attempting to masquerade as artistry, How to Talk to Girls contains a comprehensible surface narrative to support the bizarre visuals, characters, and symbolism that may be unappealing or even off-putting to some viewers. (If you’re now curious, you can find my angry review of The Neon Demon right here.)
For me, while I didn’t find How to Talk to Girls to be entirely without merit, I do view it as one of A24’s lesser efforts – at least of their films that I have seen. Elle Fanning is clearly becoming one of the hot faces of Hollywood, especially with regards to the independent scene, and this is not her first experience working with A24. But she’s beginning to be typecast and, for her sake, I’d like to see her offered and accepting some more varied roles. How often can we watch her acting morose, unsmiling, distant, and disconnected before audiences begin to assume that she has nothing else to offer? I suppose this isn’t exactly a criticism of the film, as those are the necessities for the part, and that’s fine. But don’t go in with high hopes of seeing an All-New Elle Fanning, because this is the same Elle Fanning we always see outside of perhaps an isolated moment or two.
I had a bit of a difficult time connecting with the characters and their struggles but that’s likely no fault of the film or the performers. I know this may be hard to believe but I have very little in common with the punk scene. (“Surprise!”, am I right?!) The film gives that culture a lot of love while also carefully calling attention to a couple of its downsides and hypocrisies. Mitchell and Gaiman don’t do this maliciously but rather lovingly as if to say, “Hey, enjoy it if it’s your thing, but don’t let it turn you into parody of yourself.” The clash of the punk and alien cultures offers plenty of opportunities for tension, conflict, and even some occasional well-timed humor. I didn’t expect to eventually be viewing the film as a twisted version of Romeo and Juliet but that’s exactly where I ultimately landed.
My biggest issue with the film is that, when it was all over, I didn’t feel as if I, myself, had taken anything worthwhile away from it. Both Enn and Zan grow, learn, and mature; I can concede that. But as far as the audience goes, there’s not much of a takeaway, and I find that to be a missed opportunity as the subject matter allows for plenty of potential in that arena. There really aren’t any overt messages of inclusion or the like; it’s a very personal and intimate tale surrounded by widespread, stark-raving lunacy. After going along for this credibility-straining ride (for example, why do the aliens measure time in the same way we do?), I was hoping for and expecting more of a thought-provoking payoff, though I did like the very final scene and found it to offer a satisfying emotional resolution.
While, in my opinion, How to Talk to Girls at Parties isn’t quite up to A24’s typical standards, it’s still fresh, original, and pushes boundaries and I applaud the studio for continuing along those paths. The film is far from being “bad” but I suspect it will be remembered more for its visuals and tonal oddities than for any stroke of filmmaking genius. If one goes in with the expectations of receiving an eccentric, but mostly empty, experience then they should walk out feeling more or less satisfied.
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