How To Talk To Girls At Parties zooms in on the wrong thing

Elle Fanning and Alex Sharp star in How To Talk To Girls At Parties.
Elle Fanning and Alex Sharp star in How To Talk To Girls At Parties.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION



102 minutes/now showing/2.5 stars

The story: It is 1977 in London and teenager Henry, or Enn (Alex Sharp) as his friends call him, is a punk, along with friends Vic (Abraham Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence). One night, in search of a party, they stumble on a gathering of un-British people, whom the lads assume to be Americans. Among them is alluring and enigmatic Zan (Elle Fanning).

First, the credentials. This movie is based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, one of the United Kingdom's foremost writers of fantasy, having penned everything from American Gods (2001 and now a television series) to Coraline (2002, with a movie adaptation in 2009) and too many other books and graphic novels to list.

The director is John Cameron Mitchell, award-winning creator of works that explore sexuality, such as Hedwig And The Angry Inch (2001) and Shortbus (2006). He is also one of the writers adapting the Gaiman story into this film's screenplay.

The pairing of Gaiman's provocative whimsy and Mitchell's edge should have resulted in something a lot better than this tepid teen romance, livened up by random bits of avant-garde costuming, set design and one bonkers scene of a reproductive technique as practised by the "foreigners" in the story.

Enn's coming-of-age elements take a very distant second to Mitchell's love of crowd setpieces that pile on choreography, neon colour, skin-tight vinyl outfits set to, as John says, "experimental krautrock".

He likes to let his favourite actors go big - here is Nicole Kidman, who worked with him on the domestic drama Rabbit Hole (2010) stomping around as Boadicea, owner of the punk club that Enn and his gang like.

Mitchell loves building worlds in which biology is not destiny. In the house in which the "Americans" live, there are as many genders as there are people, it seems, and more than one way of making babies, a fact that swaggering ladies' man Vic discovers to his obvious, and somewhat funny, discomfort.

But when the film-maker narrows his scope to the Enn-Zan romance, that energy fizzles, and the audience is left with an unremarkable love story. If only Mitchell had stayed with what was happening around them, rather than on them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2018, with the headline 'Zooming in on the wrong thing'. Print Edition | Subscribe