An Alien Teaches a Teenage Punk ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’

Posted May 24, 2018 5:01 p.m. EDT

There’s something endearingly childlike about “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” that goes a long way toward compensating for its inarguable daftness. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell (loosely adapting a Neil Gaiman short story), this loony romantic comedy, set in the London suburb of Croydon in 1977, encourages young love to bloom in the soil of an alien visitation.

And why not? The Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebration is in the wings, and the punk-preoccupied lads at the movie’s center are up for all sorts of mischief. Led by Enn (Alex Sharp), an aspiring graphic novelist, the friends rock out at a local club then, drawn by strange tunes and the hope of an all-night party, wash up on the doorstep of a mysterious mansion. Inside they discover what looks like a Cirque du Soleil warm-up session — or one of those old “Sprockets” skits from “Saturday Night Live” — but is actually a commune of sexually adventurous alien tourists.

Enn is particularly drawn to Zan (Elle Fanning), their single-syllable connection reinforced by interspecies curiosity. Obtaining a 48-hour pass from her collective, Zan joins Enn for a weekend of working-class wandering and a ramshackle punk-rock concert — a scene whose rowdy, pile-driving vitality only spotlights the sagginess of the movie around it. Fanning has an otherworldly glow that’s exactly right, but her character is no more defined or articulate than any other. And Sharp, who’s now 29, is as credible playing a teenager as most of the leads in “Riverdale.” (I’m not sure what to do with a safety-pin-bedecked Nicole Kidman as the doyenne of Croydon’s underground music scene, so I’m just leaving that one alone.)

Moving from an abandoned housing project to the companionable din of a punk-saturated basement, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is a kitschy, spaced-out oddity. The energy peaks and droops, pogoes and flatlines, with Sandy Powell’s kooky costumes doing much of the visual heavy lifting. (I especially liked the white, hooded onesies for their callback to the spermatozoa from Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.”) And if the ending is unexpectedly sweet, the ideas that precede it are all over the place: A glancing ecological message about overpopulation is left to dangle, as is the story’s positioning of punk defiance as an antidote to hive-mind conformity.

Rubbing blue-collar grit and grime against sterile futurism and free-love hippie nostalgia, Mitchell shows — as he did in his 2001 debut, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and the dizzily hedonistic “Shortbus” five years later — his talent for imbuing outré sex with a joyful, youthful innocence. Like Enn and Zan, he doesn’t really want to go deep; he’s much more content to play, starry-eyed, on the surface.

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“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”

Rated R for sexual prestidigitation and vomitous snogging. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.