There’s a reason why we prefer to remember adolescence through the prism of John Hughes fantasies. Acne, school, and dealing with crushes: never again, thanks very much. The first two nightmares on that list aren’t the focus of John Cameron Mitchell’s How To Talk To Girls At Parties, but the last is at its heart. Luckily for us, the film’s bittersweet love story manages to be both funny and touching, mainly thanks to its talented young cast.
Sensitive Enn (Alex Sharp) and his punk-mad mates are doing their best to tag along with the in-crowd in the legendarily raucous summer of 1977. The allure of the opposite sex and the riotous energy of the new music add a note of hormone-drenched terror to every interaction, but it’s not until a fateful post-gig attempt to find an afterparty that the real story begins. The three lads stumble upon a house inhabited by a bunch of dreamy, Californian-accented beings, all of them resplendent in brightly coloured costumes and rather tactile for ‘70s Croydon.
One of them is Zan (Elle Fanning), a beautiful and inquisitive young woman who intrigues Enn immediately when he overhears her arguing with the other strangers about their distinctly conformist take on ‘individuality’. The two quickly bond, and it’s not long before she’s taking refuge in the tree house built by Enn’s long-vanished dad and listening to her new friend’s charmingly enthusiastic theories on the importance of viruses. The young lovers share an outsider’s perspective, with a crucial difference: Enn only feels like an alien. Zan and her mysterious collective actually come from outer space, and her feelings for Enn can’t alter the grim possible future awaiting her.
Based on the short story of the same name by Neil Gaiman, How To Talk To Girls At Parties hits most of the beats expected for rites-of-passage films while offering a fresh, funny spin on familiar tropes. Fanning and Sharp are a delight, individually and together; her luminous, wide-eyed wonder hides a strength of character that foreshadows the leader she might become to her race of nihilistic castaways, while his smitten, earnest Enn is the perfect foil. Joanna Scanlan brings a winning combination of warmth and repressed anger to her role as Enn’s mum, determined to chase a new romantic opportunity of her own after years of solitude, while Nicole Kidman has enormous fun as the queen of the local punk scene; they don’t call her Boadicea for nothing. Her confrontation with Ruth Wilson’s glacial alien vamp is a particular highlight.
The film wrings some good laughs from the combination of achingly hip posturing and clueless teenage silliness that makes punk one of the more endearing – and enduring – cultural movements of a decade stuffed with them. (“I used to be in Despair…and now I’m in another band called Lipstick which formed from the remnants of Despair.”) Gaiman’s obvious fondness for the scene of his own youth has made its way to the screen undimmed, and the bunting-bedecked Croydon of that Jubilee year is lovingly recreated. Sandy Powell’s eye-catching, vibrant costumes draw a sharp visual distinction between the glamorous alien visitors and their awestruck human counterparts.
Beneath all the studs and the peroxide, there’s a real sweetness to the central romance that is hard to resist, lifted by a sharp edge of humour that keeps the saccharine away. The two leads’ loneliness and difficulty in connecting with a world in which rebellion can be just another type of conformity feels genuine, and Sharp and Fanning both capture the thrill of finding a kindred spirit, along with the accompanying fear of losing something so bright and precious and returning to a life swamped in shades of grey. The fun, frantic kick of punk can’t compete with the quieter joys of human connection, as Enn learns; Zan’s lesson in human experience, meanwhile, will lend a new impetus to her yearning to protect her floundering race.
In the end, as ever, it all comes back to love. Boys and girls may feel like they’re hankering after a different species, but How To Talk To Girls At Parties reminds us that we’re all human under the skin: even if we’re, er, actually aliens. Enn puts it best when he advises a lust-crazed mate: “Just remember that you’re you, and she’s her, and together… that’ll be another thing.”
How To Talk To Girls At Parties is in UK cinemas from today.