Parker Posey Shines in ‘Party Girl,’ a Capsule of the New York City 1990 Club Ccene

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This very campy film about a party girl who finds her calling as a librarian mainly works due to Parker Posey’s charm. While the fashion is fantastic and the film is much more diverse than you might expect, it loses points for its unchecked cultural appropriation. (NBA: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Nicole Ackman

“So silly, so decadent, so Mary,” one of the characters in Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s Party Girl quips, and it’s a fitting description of the film as a whole. This campy 1990s comedy stars Parker Posey as a twenty-something club-goer named Mary, who eventually gets her life together after many mishaps. Posey was the queen of indie movies in the 1990s, and the film works largely due to her charisma as she can make a rather unlikable character palatable. The script by Harry Birckmayer, Sheila Gaffney, and von Scherler Mayer reads like a romantic comedy fairytale. 

After Mary is arrested for illegally charging attendees at an underground rave, her godmother Judy gives her a job as a clerk at the library she works at in exchange for to bail her out. The film is filled with scenes, some shot with shaky hand-cam, of Mary partying, flirting with everyone she meets, obsessing over clothes, and using drugs. However, she also gains a deep appreciation for the Dewey Decimal System, and by the end of the film, she has decided that she wants to become a librarian and do more with her life. Alongside her path to self-discovery, she has a romance with Lebanese immigrant Mustafa who once was a teacher but now works as a street vendor since coming to America. 

The film captures the New York City 1990s club scene in a sort of time capsule. According to the cast and crew, the locations that they were shooting were places that they often frequented themselves. A lot of 1990s music is used throughout the film, and the over-the-top fashion — fantastic patterned suits, crazy tights, chunky cropped jackets — has a 1990s feel to it and was partially inspired by Posey’s own wardrobe. The editing is often as dramatic as the film’s lead character, another reminder of a bygone era of cinema. 

The film certainly paints New York City as the diverse world that it indeed was, with characters of different races and sexualities. It even features a cameo by Lady Bunny, a famous drag queen at the time. While the trope of an immigrant who has to take a low-paying job after moving to America is a little tired, the film does make an effort to give Mustafa’s character some depth and never questions that its leading white lady could end up with him. 

However, Party Girl, unfortunately, doesn’t entirely hold up when watching it in 2020. There is a scene with a Middle Eastern-themed party that makes Mustafa uncomfortable but is never fully called out within the movie. This blatant cultural appropriation may have gone uncontested in the 1990s, but it’s easy to imagine the backlash that would occur were it to be in a film now. Mary also uses a homophobic slur at one point, though it’s arguably meant to be an example of her self-centered lousy behavior. 

This film broke ground as the first feature-length film that received a theatrical release to be streamed on the Internet. After premiering to acclaim at Sundance, the film was streamed a week before its release in theatres in June of 1995. It was a publicity stunt by distributor First Look to garner more attention for the film, which had had a budget of just $150,000. Only a few hundred people watched it, and it was a very low-resolution stream, but it certainly paved the way for many films to come. It feels especially relevant right now in 2020, as many films are premiering via streaming because of movie theaters’ continued closures. 

Party Girl has become a cult classic since its release, especially amongst those working in libraries or interested in the club scene of the 1990s. Much of the movie’s success may also be due to Posey’s performance as she certainly elevates the character, especially in cute scenes like the one in which she finally embraces the Dewey Decimal System and dances around the library. While the film embraces diversity, it also features cultural appropriation, making it a conflicting watch for a modern viewer. This is the sort of 1990s indie comedy that we rarely see anymore, and it takes the viewer back to a different time. 

© Nicole Ackman (10/26/20) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Parker Posey in Party Girl

Middle Photo: Guillermo Diaz, Parker Posey, and Anthony DeSando in Party Girl

Bottom Photo: Parker Posey and Omar Townsend in Party Girl

Photo Credits: First Look Pictures

Does it pass the Bechdel test?

Yes, the film definitely passes as Mary and her godmother often discuss her work at the library, her future, and her mother. 

Tags: FF2 Media, Turner Classic Movies, Women Make Film

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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Associate based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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