Hokey aliens invade the seventies British punk scene in John Cameron Mitchell’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” and the results are not nearly as ridiculous as that sounds — for a while, at least. Channeling the communal intimacy of “Shortbus” and the riotous musicality of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Mitchell transforms Neil Gaiman’s sci-fi short story into a vibrant, edgy and at times outright goofy statement on tough antiestablishment rebels and freewheeling hippy vibes, suggesting that they’re not really all that that different.
At its center, scrawny, leather-clad punk teen Enn (Alex Sharp) veers across the grimy London suburb of Croydon alongside equally rambunctious pals John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (Abraham Lewis), heckling at passersby en route to a noisy concert. As English rockers The Damned blast on the soundtrack, the frame rate gets jagged and the kids seem to content to run wild in the screaming underground music scene; the tableaux suggests equal parts “Trainspotting” and “SLC Punk,” but that’s only a starting point for the stranger science fiction drama to come.
After a messy night out at the cramped venue run by the domineering Queen Boadicea (a wonderfully wacky, rage-filled Nicole Kidman), the boys head out in search of a house party, inadvertently stumbling onto something much stranger: A houseful of monotonous characters decked out in neon latex engaged in cryptic dances and speaking in bizarre, cultish generalities. (Fleeting scenes of their strange rituals suggest what might happen if Matthew Barney remade “The Coneheads.”) “They must be from California,” says Enn, not quite realizing when we do that they’re actually space aliens traversing the galaxy and temporarily inhabiting human bodies.
Suddenly, the grimy realism of the opening scenes run straight into an outlandish extraterrestrial love story. Enn meets Zan (Elle Fanning), a petite, stone-faced alien offspring unsure about her kind’s cannibalistic ways and instantly drawn to Enn’s curiosity; after a spat with her overlords, she leaves the party with a baffled Enn in tow, following him home.
While he’s entranced by what he believes to be a brainwashed soul-searcher from across the pond, she’s at war with her species, who routinely confront her by possessing the bodies of people around town in a bid to get her to return to her own kind. She has other plans. There’s a charming irreverence to this emerging courtship, particularly the way Enn’s robotic delivery strikes Zan and his peers as the words of a sheltered woman eager to rebel. “I can come with you,” she tells them. “To the punk.”
With Gaiman’s original story dispensed in the opening act, the ensuing quest to discover new freedoms roots “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” firmly in John Cameron Mitchell territory. “There is no progress without deviation,” one alien asserts, which may as well be Enn’s mission statement as well.
After the initial premise takes shape, the movie sags into its bizarre scenario and often fails to overcome some of the cheesier ingredients. Still, despite some uneven moments, the whole idea of Mitchell’s fixation on rough love and intimacy makes a surprisingly potent bedfellow with Gaiman’s far-reaching alien concepts. Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco’s shadowy cinematography goes a long way toward evoking a dreary, Thatcher-era London, while the movie’s key actors enhance the underlying emotional struggle.
Fanning makes her muted alien convey hints of depth as she wakes up to the world, but Sharp especially nails the yearning of a genial creative type seeking to escape his drab surroundings. They wouldn’t look out of place in your average, whimsical romcom — but thankfully, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” has more imagination than that.
The campy costume design gives each member of the otherworldly invaders a unique identity, though none stand out more than “The Stellas” (Ruth Wilson), a sexually ravenous female alien with an anal fixation, not to mention the ability to morph into multiple beings and later devour them. The entire notion of body-shifting opens up the story’s potential as an exploration of fluid sexuality, and channels the energy of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” in celebrating such freedoms. The apex of this bicurious movie’s appeal arrives in a psychedelic song-and-dance number improvised onstage between the movie’s leads, which erupts into astonishing visual effects that are at once disturbing and gorgeous.
It would make a terrific climactic scene — a transitional meditation on people in love transcending the boundaries of society and gender — so it’s unfortunate that the movie keeps trudging along through a clumsily staged confrontation between the punks and the aliens that drags after a matter of minutes. Still, there’s a symbolic function behind the showdown: the possibility that the utopian free love movement could find unexpected common ground with anarchy in the U.K., and that savvy contrast allows “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” to get away with its ridiculous extremes.
Aided by Nico Muhly’s soothing score, the movie regularly hints at shrewd ideas lurking beneath its flamboyant surface. It doesn’t land all of them, but Mitchell and co-screenwriter Phillips Goslett deserve credit for trying to make such an absurd high concept work as well as it does. More importantly, after the sturdy, well-acted drama “Rabbit Hole,” Mitchell comes back to ambitious material about ostracized young people desperate for the solace of companionship. It’s a welcome return to form.
The movie ends on a cheery note, hinting at the prospects of a better tomorrow, and it’s a reminder that “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is primarily a vessel for the attitude coursing through all of Mitchell’s work: Even the most outrageous behavior comes from a real place.
“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it