“What is punk?” It’s a deceptively complex question derived from existential importance—at least to anyone who was ever 16-years-old—and it is a driving factor of John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a cheerfully bizarre little piece of spikey-haired weirdness. As based on genre-dreamweaver Neil Gaiman’s short story of the same name, here is a patchy, scrappy, and all around messy piece of sci-fi psychedelics with a kernel of romantic joy underneath what amounts to screaming “Klaatu, Varada, Nikto” into a microphone. Or in other words, it’s pretty damn punk in its own right.
Despite being Mitchell’s first film since the somber Rabbit Hole, How to Talk to Girls is really a kissing cousin with his directorial debut, Hedwig and the Angry Itch. Like that cult classic of camp cinema, Girls is a gonzo delirium, albeit a much more frivolous one that imagines the kind of pre-Thatcher, post-Beatlemania Britain that now only exists in the hearts of middle-aged, one-time hell-raisers like Gaiman. It is a story involving music, hair gel, aliens, and sexually fluid threesomes between a former candidate for toxic masculinity turned extraterrestrial’s concubine. So it’s fair to say it’s a little more muddled than Hedwig, but it keeps the same playful energy that will harmonize with a specific audience.
Set in a pretty dour suburb on the outskirts of London, Girls is, in a round-about way, the story of some aliens who get lost on their interstellar sojourn through the cosmos. As intergalactic beings capable of taking the shape of animals, spheres, and even literal stars, they’re on the last leg of their odyssey when they stop in the UK for Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee in 1977… but they got turned around on the way and wind up in Croydon instead of St. James’ Park. But that’s A-OK with one of the youngest of the multiple species among the vactioners; and she’s named Zan (Elle Fanning).
Zan is going through youthful rebellion, and there is nowhere more youthful or rebellious than punk era England, even if her guide turns out to be a pretty clean cut nice guy who goes by Enn (Alex Sharp). Enn loves the local, grimy punk scene ruled over by the nightclub maven Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman). However, Enn and his two mates are too green for that—they can’t even find the after party. Rather they wander into the abandoned house Zan and her alien cohorts are staying in. While one species tries to seduce the other boys, Enn runs into Zan among the more nebbish and studious E.T.s hanging out in the kitchen.
Soon enough, the two teens are running through London as Zan plans to spend her last two days on Earth “going to the punk” with Enn and learning about bodily functions, from the bathroom to the bedroom. Oh and she and Enn kind of, sort of… start an awesome punk rock band along the way.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ easygoing peculiarity is of course by design. When the film works, and it often does for the movie’s first hour, it is because of a pretty perfect union of Gaiman’s usual high-concept mischievousness being coupled with Mitchell’s more camp eccentricities. Remembering an era of obvious importance in Gaiman’s youth, as well as his ability to blend science fiction and fantasy into the mundane, there is something lovingly understated about seeing aliens whose kitschy designs wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Star Trek. All color coded rubbers and latexes, the alien clothes vary from species to species, but all have a sexual knowingness coursing through. Nevertheless, the overall effect plays as innocently as campfire tunes.
The movie is more about recapturing a time and energy from the vantage of a very pulpy sci-fi trope, and in that sense, Sharpe’s amiable Enn provides a basic, yet pleasant, coming of age anchor for the first two acts. This makes for an affable detour about first loves that is so wistful, it is a wonder the movie isn’t dipped in sepia. Fulfilling the visage of that nostalgia is a reliably effervescent and broadly charming Elle Fanning. As an actress who has cornered the market in recent years on young women in a hurry to grow up, Fanning is allowed with Zan to rely on a more carefree buoyancy than some of the more lascivious parts other directors have been a little too eager to pursue (say hi, Nicolas Winding Refn). Even when she is licking the side of Enn’s face, the film quixotically plays this as simply the stuff of adolescent wonderment.
The movie really most belongs, however, to Nicole Kidman, who is delighted to have silver and black spikes in her hair, which accompany her constant raccoon-eyed mascara. A role seemingly designed from the ground up for Kidman to chew on, she struts across the screen and steals scenes one truth bomb at a time. “I’ve had 12 abortions and what do I have to show for it?” she whines to Zan and her only son, a lay-about she is grooming for a punk record deal. It’s all nonsense, but a very compelling kind of nonsense when in the hands of Kidman.
The problems lie, however, in the nonsense that can’t be elevated by any amount of vamping. And that comes from a third act that more or less falls to complete pieces. The real climax of the film is when Zan takes the stage and cries against her alien parents and the face of authority. She shrieks at the top of her lungs and reaching a Kubrickian level of cosmic connection with Enn in the process. Unfortunately, the movie keeps going for about half an hour, even though there is not much else left to traverse.
Other than a loving epilogue nod to Gaiman’s most ardent fans, the climax of the film is maddening in its attempt to strike a pose that feels less punk and more bubblegum, as Enn leads a resistance to attack the alien old foggies who want to take Zen home for rather unsavory reasons. When the movie is about first loves, whether on this world or any other, it’s in harmony; when it actually tries to fight the power, it seems about as successful in a Mohawk at a job interview.
In spite of these sizable issues, I believe there is an audience for How to Talk to Girls at Parties that will love this movie, flaws and all. The film itself is a thinly veiled celebration of identity, and the fluid directions that can take, be it from celestial star to star Elle Fanning, or from girl to boy. It is a celebration of the kind of inclusiveness that still is far-off from the mainstream, but is as natural as a three-string cry into the void. As a midnight movie on a college campus with a healthy hipster population, you could even hear the crowd singing along.