Part High Fidelity, part Earth Girls Are Easy, the intergalactic punk rock rom-com How to Talk to Girls at Parties springs forth from the fertile mind of author Neil Gaiman (full disclosure: my favorite writer), whose bizarro world sensibilities find a kindred spirit in Hedwig and the Angry Inch director John Cameron Mitchell. Together they’ve created the most daft teen romance to ever take place during an alien invasion, or the most offbeat alien invasion to ever have a teen romance? There’s no simple way to categorize this maniacal misfit love story, which, like the counter-culture icons it champions, is exactly what makes it so endearing. Who wants another bland, “normal” romance movie, anyway?
It’s 1977 in the hard-scrabble London suburbs of Croydon where three rowdy punk-obsessed friends spend their time and limited resources looking for trouble, girls, and their latest punk rock fix. Enn (Alex Sharp, too old at 29 years of age) is the group’s straight-arrow, although he’s something of a square and at first he seems like the kind of guy Matthew Lillard would have ripped in SLC Punk!. His buddies are bad boy Vic (AJ Lewis) and amiable sidekick John (Ethan Lawrence), who join him at an underground club run by punk mistress Boadicea (Nicole Kidman), her resembling the lovechild of Andy Warhol and David Bowie.
After rocking out they are drawn by exotic sounds to a mysterious after party that resembles, all at once, a Coneheads skit, a Russ Meyer retrospective, and a human zoo of spandexed oddities. Into this spaced-out den of weirdos Enn connects with Zan (a luminous Elle Fanning), who turns out to be a member of an extraterrestrial clan/cult sent to Earth to consume as much of its culture as possible. But they have very strict rules on…well, everything (you should see their “mating” ritual. Hint: it involves anal probing and cell division), and Zan is only allowed 48 hours to run off with Enn so he can show her “the punk.”
As someone who wouldn’t know the Sex Pistols from the Ramones if quizzed on it, I’ve still always loved the rebellious attitude of punk rock at peak popularity. While the film only scratches the surface of the music scene, which may be disappointing to those seeking more, the constantly roaring soundtrack and anarchist spirit hit like a bass boom to the chest. Gaiman’s gift for creative detail mixes with Mitchell’s glam rock sensibilities like a Molotov cocktail, exploding in an array of wild colors, costumes, dance numbers, and the occasional psychedelic mind trip. It can be tiring to keep up with so many off the wall antics but Enn and Zan’s romance, which blooms out of his innocence and her extreme curiosity about the world (“Show me the punk!”), is so charming that you just sit back and go with it. Their unusual, interspecies bond solidifies in an adrenaline-fueled display of impromptu harmonizing that’s like Once if everyone was tripping on acid. Not only is it the film’s most intensely satisfying moment but it serves to pump up what had been a sagging narrative. For all of the film’s many bursts of energy it occasionally gets bogged down in its own weirdness. In expanding on Gaiman’s short story, Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Gosett sometimes struggle to make this more than just one great idea. That said, it’s tough to deny watching Zan discover the wonders of jam or make socially awkward sexual references.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is many wonderfully peculiar things all at once, but it finds a certain rhythm that will be music to the right listener’s ears. Zan, while trying her alien best to figure out this punk thing that Enn loves so much, captures it best: “There are contradictions in your metaphor. But I am moved by it.”