After watching How to Talk to Girls at Parties, I feel safe saying John Cameron Mitchell is an underrated film director. His creativity is respected, but only when applied to other areas. The focus of his adaptation of his own musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch was on his performance, not how he translated a stage musical that takes place in the course of a single night on a single dive bar stage into something beautifully cinematic and believable. The focus on Rabbit Hole was, again, not on how a director helped shape a difficult stage play into compelling cinema, but Nicole Kidman's wonderful performance. Shortbus was treated as more interesting for concept than execution, again focused in on the bravery of the cast. It just seems that if a director can consistently get awards attention for different actors with every film he directs, he might be a very good director.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is, in many ways, a cinematic successor to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It's a very specific narrative driven by underground music, sexual frustration, and a belief that the narrative of the titans eating their young is historical fact, not fiction.
The year is 1977. An young English punk who goes by Enn is trying to bring on the revolution sung about by his favorite acts with a self-published fanzine. He commits minor acts of chaos with his two best friends, eventually sneaking into a concert run by the Queen Boadicea, the best punk taste-maker this side of Vivienne Westwood. Enn struggles to make connections with most girls he meets until he winds up at a strange afterparty for the concert. Zan, currently rebelling against her teacher-parents, is an intergalactic tourist visiting England before the great feeding happens for her people. Naturally, the two rebellious youth form a quick bond that no one else understands.
I may have buried the lead here. How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a sci-fi/coming of age/romantic comedy/sometimes musical film set to an original soundtrack inspired by the punk movement of the 70s. It's adapted from a wonderfully bizarre short story of the same name by Neil Gaiman that is all about lore and suggestion, not plot. Zan isn't even a character in that story, but she is a natural extension of the mystery of the girls Enn talks to at that version's party.
Even knowing it's an adaptation of someone else's story, I can't help but feel that John Cameron Mitchell is riffing on the same headspace that created Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Specifically, there are recurring motifs of abstract animation when dealing with the space lore and love that feel like a futuristic spin on the wonderfully animated "The Origin of Love" sequence in Hedwig. Zan's people bond through mental connections, visualization, and music, and the human body turns into the canvas and gallery for an explosive show of colors, emotion, and wonder.
So much of How to Talk to Girls at Parties functions as a musical. I'm really of two minds on it and neither is a negative criticism. I feel like it could easily be a full musical in this punk and experimental score style, but also see how the music is tool to connect the audience to the stranger elements of the story.
On the one side, I wish the film had more music in it. The singing sequences--even the bizarre atonal harmonies of Zan's people at the party--are some of the best filmed musical sequences on film since, well, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There have been showier musical numbers since--Across the Universe, Chicago, Frozen, and Sweeney Todd have wonderful moments of musical spectacle--but none that match the specificity and need for the songs in storytelling of Hedwig. I'm just greedy and wanted more of those magical moments with sung songs rather than scoring. They're so good in this film that I didn't want them to stop.
On the other side, the music is a tool used to open up a strange story. Mitchell riffs on familiar cinematic iconography to draw parallels to films that help translate the absurdity of this story into something far more believalbe. How to Talk to Girls at Parties opens with one of the best scored and filmed montage sequences to a non-musical film I've seen in quite a long time, reminiscent of the mimes in Blow-Up or the chase in A Hard Day's Night. The dedicated song scenes--an a Capella number used to isolate Enn from the punks, the first punk performance, the party sequence at Zan's compound, and a later punk concert--are clever, exciting, and memorable. The other montage or scored sequences work so well as they are that there really isn't room for more songs. The songs and scoring are great--simultaneously original, clever, and familiar in the best way possible.
I don't want to confuse anyone. This film is not a traditional musical by any means and doesn't claim to be one. The songs are a highlight in a wonderful coming of age sci-fi romance. Music is of great importance to the film by narrative and directorial choice, but it is a tool, not the medium.
How to Talk to Girls a Parties is wild. It's an incredibly unpredictable story just for committing so heavily to the quirks of Zan's people only hinted at in the story. What John Cameron Mitchell does better than anyone is take incredibly strange or unsettling material and makes it feel honest and familiar to the point of seeming normal. How to Talk to Girls at Parties is his strangest and most accessible film to date, incredibly human and relatable in spite of literally being about a roving band of punks colliding with a roving band of intergalactic travelers.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is available to stream on Amazon Prime or for purchase/rental on all digital platforms.