Intergalactic rom-com, art-school goof, Earth Boys Are Easy: It’s hard to know exactly how to categorize How to Talk to Girls at Parties — a problem that director and co-writer John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) seemed to have in the movie’s execution too, though he does it with so much determinedly daffy charm, he almost pulls it off.
Based on a Neil Gaiman short story of the same name, the narrative opens on Enn (Alex Sharp) and his two best friends — restless schoolboys who spend their considerable spare time wandering the teenage-wasteland streets of outer-borough London circa 1977, constantly in search of the elusive, perfect punk-rock moment.
What they find one night after a basement gig is something else entirely: a house party that looks like the backlot on Barbarella, with a heavy pinch of primal-scream therapy. Fembots in vinyl bodysuits and high ponytails prowl the halls; blank-faced dancers sway and undulate like extraterrestrial seaweed; arcane rituals lurk behind every doorway.
But so do very pretty girls, like Zan (Elle Fanning). With her yellow latex dress and blond Björk buns, she looks like a hot Sprocket and talks like Siri with her wires crossed. (Listening to the odd, infinite ways she finds to conjugate the word punk nearly makes the whole film.) What she wants most is a taste of freedom, and maybe, literally, a taste of Enn.
That’s where the romance (and multiple reasons to fill out the soundtrack) come in, along with Nicole Kidman’s silver-haired Boadicea, a sort of sneering den mother of the underground who looks like David Bowie playing Andy Warhol, or Cruella De Vil on the skids. (Ruth Wilson, of Luther and The Affair, has a fun cameo too as a sort of alpha fembot.)
That’s also where the plot begins to billow and bag, wandering from grimy diners to record stores to abandoned rooftops like a bored kid on a bender. What saves it is the casting (Fanning especially is fantastic, both winsome and wonderfully strange) and Mitchell’s obvious fondness for his milieu. His giddy, knowingly camp direction has a sort of glitter-stick DIY spirit that keeps the movie aloft long after the story itself has run out of road. B–