Film Review: How to Talk to Girls at Parties

A typical teenager—insecure, hormonal and in love with the power of music to paper over life's dull patches—falls for an alien in this sweetly daffy picture about coming of age in punk-era England.
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1977, Croydon: Aspiring graphic novelist Enn (Alex Sharp), who self-publishes a zine called Virys (because unconventional spelling is way rebellious) is a good kid with a quiet rebellious streak. He and his best friends, chubby John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (AJ Lewis)—who's working a cool Billy Idol look and doing his best not to let on how utterly clueless he is about the mysteries of sex—live for punk music, whose raucous anger says everything they're too well-behaved to shout.

The country is in the grip of Silver Jubilee fever—it's the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's coronation—but the inseparable friends (which is another way of saying they're too geeky for anyone else to want anything to do with them) get wind of a house party that's better than any of them could have imagined: It's in an actual house, the music is great and the hosts are cool in a weird way—which is, of course, the coolest cool way to be.

But the fact is, their hosts are seriously not from around here: They're extraterrestrial entities from the galaxy Vinyl Fetish Outfits. They hitch rides in human bodies, love to dance, and one of them—a cute girl named Zan (Elle Fanning), who prefers regular gear to orange and red get-ups that involve suggestive patches over what hygiene teachers used to call "personal areas" favored by her people (if one can call them that), takes a shine to the sweetly awkward Enn, who can't believe his luck, because the better he gets to know her, the cooler she gets. The inevitable snag is that she's on an educational tour of the third rock from the Sun and in 48 hours she has to go back home…plus there's talk of an upcoming event ominously called "The Eating."

As stories geared to young adult viewers go, How to Talk… hits every standard note: the hero who's going on to better things if he can just get through this stage of his so-called life; the hapless friends; the clueless parents; the problematic romance; the hangouts and the power of music to unite tribes. One might expect something a little edgier from a film directed and co-written by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), whose story originated with Neil Gaiman (Coraline)…something more like the 1969 Robert Silverberg story "Passengers," about alien entities who hijack human bodies for sexual adventuring. But that wouldn't be called How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a title that neatly sums up a world of youthful angst.

How to Talk…doesn't aim to shock and awe, so it's unfair to take it to task for not doing so. And the story's inevitable understanding grownup—in this case punk ring-mistress Boadicea, a clothing designer with glam bride-of-Frankenstein hair and a warehouse/home/hangout whose spiky industrial décor fairly screams that this is the place to be—gives Nicole Kidman an opportunity to channel her inner Vivienne Westwood while proving that it is possible to make it past voting age without your heart dying.

For all its calculated oddness, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is fundamentally good-natured and the fact that it occasionally lands a nice one, like the moment when the young folks justify the aliens' odd behavior by theorizing that they must be part of one of those crazy suicide cults they're heard about, is above and beyond its call of duty. And as one of the aliens, U.K. actress Ruth Wilson (best known for the television series “The Affair”) deploys her sublime lip curl to excellent effect. Sometimes little things mean a lot, especially in movies whose dramatic travails (at least for the humans; Zan's people have more exotic issues) run to well-meaning but clueless parents, getting home before curfew and figuring out the mechanics of kissing—things that just a few years after they mean everything are gathering dust in the attic of embarrassing memories.

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