Director John Cameron Mitchell made a splash with his 2001 Sundance hit “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” It was funny, flashy and poignant, the story of a transgender punk-rock girl from East Berlin who tours the U.S. with her band as she tells her life story.
He brings that same visual flair and love of punk music with him in “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” new this week on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s a breezy, odd tale that mixes comedy, sci-fi and a coming-of-age story all in one. Like the characters within it, the film is full of energy and ambition, even if it’s not sure at all times what to with it.
The story follows Enn (Alex Sharp), a shy, awkward teenager in 1970s London, and his buddies as they attend a punk rock show. Afterwards, they try to locate an after-party and get lost, but stumble onto what they think is the party.
It certainly looks punk, with beautiful women and men clad in unusual, otherworldly fashions. And otherworldly it is, as we soon learn (but the guys do not) that these people are all aliens. They guys just think they’re American. That’s just as alien to them, it turns out.
At the party, Enn meets the beautiful Zan (Elle Fanning), who it seems is a bit of a rebel, and leaves her people behind to experience London with Enn.
They roam the city as Enn teaches her what “punk” is all about. Their journey leads them to Queen Boadicea (a game Nicole Kidman), a jaded punk show promoter who prides herself on discovering raw talent.
She becomes enthralled with Zan, and in one of the best scenes of the film, introduces Zan at one of her shows, who gives a raucous performance that brings the house down (and that can only happen in movies).
Obviously, Enn falls for Zan, but things get complicated as her people search for her and a weird rite of passage looms.
The film has Mitchell’s playfulness throughout, and his willingness to let characters breathe rather than propel the story (he did this to an even greater extent in his sexual odyssey “Shortbus,” which was largely unscripted). It makes the narrative a little muddled, but never boring.
The film is based on a 2006 short story by Neil Gaiman, but it’s is really a modern rift on “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” almost literally. The film certainly has fun with cultural and gender differences. And setting the film in the punk heyday certainly underscores the story’s themes of personal freedom and defying authority. Zan, it turns out, is as punk as it gets.
When the film works, it’s endearing and engaging. But like its characters, it gets lost along the way. The fun, though, is watching it all get back on track.
There is some mumbo-jumbo about the extraterrestrials “moving on” that no one really understands, but no matter. As Zan says to Enn, “There are contradictions in your metaphor, but I am moved by it.”
That pretty much sums up “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” It’s odd and energetic, but a good time nonetheless.