How to Talk to Girls at Parties is set in the 1970s and has punk as the backdrop and an excellent cast (Nicole Kidman, Ruth Wilson, Elle Fanning). It also features what could be a decent premise (boy who treats girls as if from another planet meets actual girl from another planet). But everything it has going for it is undone by what it doesn’t have going for it, which is substantial. This could, in fact, have been titled How to Stay Awake Once You’ve Lost All Patience because, I now know, staying awake once you’ve lost all patience makes talking to girls at parties look like a walk in the park, frankly.
The film is extrapolated from a very short story (only 18 pages) by the science-fiction writer Neil Gaiman and is directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit Hole; several episodes of Girls) who wrote the screenplay with Philippa Goslett (Mary Magdalene; oh dear). The setting is London (Croydon) and it’s 1977 so it’s punk on the one hand and the Queen’s jubilee on the other. The opening scenes are all bunting and street parties and space hoppers with The Damned on the soundtrack, but after that the film doesn’t much bother with the era specifically. This is a pity, as I was hoping for those balls on a string (clackers?) that took people’s eyes out yet were still all the rage.
Our hero is 15-year-old Enn (Alex Sharp) who lives with his mum (Joanna Scanlon, wasted) and has two friends, Vic (Abraham Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence, gratingly basing his performance on James Corden). They are off to a punk gig and then, hopefully, the after-party. They want to get laid, and are cook-a-hoop to note that the gig is ‘teaming with gash’. They refer to a girl named Tracy as ‘Tracy, the slag’ and then amend this to ‘Tracy, the magnanimous’ and then ‘lady bitch’. This is supposedly made all right by the ‘journey’ they go on, but as the ‘journey’ is so poorly handled, once I’d recoiled that was that, I could not un-recoil. I was with Tracy.
The gig is presided over by Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman), an East End Australian (judging by the accent) and angry punk-band matriarch with a Toyah Willcox hair-do and terrible lines to shout — ‘shut your gaping gob!’ There is no character work, just the shouting. The boys make it to what they think is the after-party but, my, the people are weird with the women wearing latex S&M outfits — or at least a school production’s idea of S&M outfits — as they perform bendy gymnastics to electronic music. Here, the choreography is so absurdly bad they’d be instantly buzzed off Britain’s Got Talent unless Amanda was in the mood for putting them through just to annoy Simon, which sometimes happens.
The boys, it turns out, have stumbled into a house filled with aliens on an educational tour of Earth. Enn meets Zan (a doe-eyed, ethereal Elle Fanning) while Vic gets taken upstairs by ‘Stella’ who is not the ‘Stella’ that is Ruth Wilson (wasted). Is there more than one ‘Stella’? Confusing, as so much is. The Stella who isn’t the Stella that is Ruth Wilson does sexual stuff to Vic that we can’t properly see, then divides into two people, the other beinga man. I don’t expect to be spoon-fed, but do expect to be given some vague idea of what’s going on, and we never are. (What’s with the girl with six fingers? What’s with the old stern woman in white? What’s the point of employing CGI that’s so bizarrely unsophisticated it puts you in mind of The Tomorrow People? What’s the time and how much more of this is there to go?)
This is a convoluted, woeful mishmash with nothing that feels essential to the central story, as there is no central story. Enn and Zan fall in love but this isn’t the central story, because now the aliens have gathered to explain their (wholly incomprehensible) world-view. But this isn’t the central story either, because now Matt Lucas has popped up, but this isn’t the central story… and so on. It’s as if every instrument in an orchestra were playing their own tune. Ideally,a film like this would work as a kind of cross between Jubilee and Starman but as it has nothing to say about punk, and the romance element is unaffecting, it doesn’t approach either. And once you’ve lost patience? Let me tell you, staying awake is hard.