An indie hit that catapulted its lead, Parker Posey, to stardom, 1995’s Party Girl was generated from the consolidating heat from the crowning elements of mid-’90s popular culture. At a time when rave joints, techno, Doc Martins, and the rise of the internet were coalescing at a speed faster than a teenage growth spurt, it seemed natural that a filmmaker would capitalize on the burgeoning subculture.
Daisy von Scherler Mayer‘s debut isn’t so much a satire on the rave scene and its affiliates as it is a kind-hearted send-up. Often, it transcends its lampooning mechanisms, locating a story of true warmth that services a host of characters templated from the scenester profiles of its era. The story’s fish-out-of-water gimmick had already been overused by about two decades, but von Scherler Mayer does manage a fresh take on her miscreant-who-crosses-the-tracks and presents a clever, charming comedy, equal part grungy and slick.
Posey plays Mary, a trendy fashion-fringer who elegantly slums around New York’s hotspots, occasionally throwing illegal house parties when the rent money runs low. When she is bailed out of jail by her godmother, Judy, after she is arrested for throwing one of those house parties, she returns the favor by hitting up her godmother for some extra cash. Judy (played by von Scherler Mayer’s real-life mother, Sasha von Scherler), an overworked librarian who is really beginning to feel her age, is fed-up with Mary’s antics and is about to write off her responsibilities to her goddaughter for good. But Mary insists Judy helps her out by giving her a job at the library.
Skeptical, but operating in good faith, Judy hires Mary as a page. Utterly lost in her job, Mary struggles and fumbles around, much to the exasperation of Judy and the rest of the library staff. Meanwhile, during her lunch breaks, Mary spots Mustafa (Omar Townsend), a street vendor who’s recently moved to New York from Lebanon. Taking a quick shine to the vendor, Mary endeavors to get his attention. But her efforts in winning the young man over spill over into her job at the library with disastrous results. It takes Mary some sobering up and complete concentration to get her act together – which isn’t any easier, she discovers, than learning the dewy decimal system.
Von Scherler Mayer’s off-the-wall script gains traction in its ability to charm viewers with a series of artless but winsome situations. We may not actually know people like Mary, but we seem to hear about them all the time, and that remove allows Posey’s character a larger-than-life appeal; in a post-grunge and high-wired digital age, it makes a person like Mary seem strangely mythic. Posey, who has made her name off the backs of many absurdly sidewinding characters like this one in Party Girl (check her Darla in 1993’s Dazed and Confused), clearly understands the send-up she’s delivering of New York’s underground players.
It isn’t clear just how much the American mini-mall generation of the mid-’90s understood of the country’s hippest, dankest corners, so Posey, perhaps using the raver scene’s mystique as leverage, dials up the parody for a good deal of over-the-top laughs. Though her brand of humor is sure to turn off a good number of viewers who prefer their comedy four-squared, Posey hits her mark admirably, managing to satirize her social-climbing Mary while genuinely humanizing her. Even when the story threatens to veer off the tracks into pure ham (a hopped-up club owner who mistakenly takes Mary for a fellow alcoholic, for instance), Posey reins her performance into the intimate perimeters of a single, disconcerted woman on the brink of self-collapse.
Von Scherler Mayer fills Party Girl with a bevy of equally farcical characters that seem clearly calculated for laughs but also supplies Mary with a network of wily eccentrics to engage with. The comical histrionics of the ensemble cast are deployed with a shameless amount of nudging and winking, but in Party Girl’s neon-pulsing world of clubbers, hipsters, and high-end fashionistas on the skint, it seems apropos and keeps the film alive and crackling. In particular, Mary’s DJ buddy Leo (Guillermo Diaz) and club owner Rene (Donna Mitchell) keep the slapstick running and provide some of the film’s most comic moments.
Mary’s immersion into the calm hub of the library’s serene and literary sphere is where Von Scherler Mayer finds true comic value. Unable to completely abandon her clubgoer persona, Mary finds a way to settle in with the staff and her environment with the energy and style of a raver. In the film’s most inspired moment, Mary breaks into the library after hours one night, determined to figure out the dewy decimal system. Cue the house music, the club moves, and a few nifty ways to shelve books, and you’ve got one of the most charismatically epiphanic scenes to feature in an urban comedy.
Fun City Editions’ Blu-ray release is a bells-and-whistles package filled with interviews with star Posey and filmmaker von Scherler Mayer, as well as the script co-writer Harry Birckmayer and music supervisor Bill Coleman. There is also an audio commentary, and the release is rounded out with an essay booklet. The transfer is fantastic; it pops with fresh, fluorescent color that really captures the vibrancy of the characters and the flashing, frenetic bustle of the city. Soundwise, the transfer suffers a touch, as inherent issues and source limitations of the film’s indie budget have ensured that the audio quality is not always top-notch. But the sound is still serviceable and there are English subtitles provided to help out along the way.
Party Girl’s true appeal today – nearly 30 years on since its debut – is its nostalgia factor for a culture come and gone. Parts of New York, Times Square in particular, had been in the process of redevelopment during the first half of the ‘90s. The film captures an interesting interstice between the city’s once grungy, sprawling playground and its current eternal upkeep as a gentrified haven for Generation Z. Von Scherler Mayer’s Party Girl wins on its cool latitude approach in allowing the story to unfold in accordance to the surrounding city’s whims. Moreover, the cast is equally game for the offbeat rhythms that the script encourages, and Posey’s performance, a parodic gesture that sweeps the frames in wide, showy arcs, is pure, sparkling kitsch delivered in champagne coupes.