Movie review: Sci-fi love story of punks, aliens and loud guitars sounds weird but works

By Michael O'Sullivan, The Washington Post - Updated: June 1, 2018 at 3:55 pm • Published: June 1, 2018 0
photo - Elle Fanning, left, plays the alien Zan, and Alex Sharp is the human Enn in the bittersweet sci-fi romance "How to Talk to Girls at Parties." MUST CREDIT: Dean Rogers,  A24
Elle Fanning, left, plays the alien Zan, and Alex Sharp is the human Enn in the bittersweet sci-fi romance "How to Talk to Girls at Parties." MUST CREDIT: Dean Rogers, A24

"How to Talk to Girls at Parties" is a candy-colored sci-fi confection set in 1977 London, where Enn (Alex Sharp), a shy Clash fan, meets and falls in love with a pretty member of a colony of visiting extraterrestrials.

The title notwithstanding, I hesitate to call this alien a "girl." Although Zan's character is played - or, in the film's parlance, manifested - by Elle Fanning, her anatomical gender does not conform to that of female humans. While Zan and Enn - short for Henry, pronounced with a Cockney accent - are mostly chaste, other scenes show interspecies sex. But it's not like in the movies, unless that film involves body-cavity probes.

What Zan's colony wants here is unclear. Do they come in peace, e.g., for research? Or for nefarious purposes? That question - the central mystery of so many alien-invasion thrillers - takes a back seat to the enigmas of the human heart in what amounts to a bittersweet, if slight, metaphor about love by John Cameron Mitchell ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch").

The real question is: Who is more alien - Zan and her fellow E.T.s, who behave like androids dressed in 1965 haute couture, or Enn and his coterie of spike-haired, nose-thumbing punks, epitomized by abrasive band manager Queen Boadicea, played by Nicole Kidman? A girl, in the eyes of a teenage boy, is like something from another planet and vice versa. Or so the film suggests.

Although the movie is based on a 2006 short story by Neil Gaiman, it's more like a version of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," but with loud guitars. An element of "Romeo and Juliet" in the device of star-crossed love explains the climactic showdown between the punks and the otherworldly interlopers, which is tedious and far from the point of the film.

Setting the film in the punk heyday underscores its themes of personal freedom and defying authority. And there are heartwarming touches, despite a plot muddied by sci-fi mumbo-jumbo about cannibalism.

When it works, it works. And even when it doesn't, it's endearing enough to earn a bit of forgiveness for its flaws. As Zan says to Enn, an aspiring artist and writer who shows her the comic-book zine that is his magnum opus: "There are contradictions in your metaphor, but I am moved by it."

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