Earth, 1977: England's dreaming, London's burning, and punk is raging as the U.K.'s youth culture du jour. Enn (Alex Sharp) spends his days writing and drawing his zine – titled Virys, because punk! – and giving polite society the two-fingered salute. At night, he and his knuckleheaded buddies hit up warehouse spaces to see first-wave bands like the Dyschords play their two-chords-and-the-truth anthems; the scene is run by elder stateswoman Queen Boadicea (viva Nicole Kidman!), who is inspiring the kids to fly their freak flags ASAP and, apparently, will one day inspire David Bowie's entire look in Labyrinth.
Looking for an afterparty, Enn and his social-leper posse stumble upon a house full of gorgeous men and women in brightly colored rubber attire. They assume these oddballs must just be modeling the latest Vivienne Westwood fashions, or given the amount of gyrating interpretive group dancing, are "probably from California." [Rimshot!] Wandering around, our hero meets Zan (Elle Fanning), a pouting young woman arguing with her "parent-teachers." They want her to prep for something called an "eating ritual," while she wants to experience as much life as humanly possible – and therein lies the rub. Zan and all of these folks in the fetish outfits are from a galaxy far, far away. They also have a tendency to get non-binary when sexually aroused. And they're only on Earth for a short while, but having tasted a morsel of nonconformity after a smitten Enn cuts up her dress with scissors, this teenager from another world wants to vivaciously gulp all of it down. "Do more punk to me," she purrs.
Fashion-tattered rebel music, pansexual healing, outré celebrations of the intergalactic brotherhood of outsiderdom – who better to tackle this material than the gent who gave us Hedwig and the Angry Inch? John Cameron Mitchell should be the perfect filmmaker to turn Neil Gaiman's 2007 short story about safety-pinned adolescents getting hot and heavy with alien sex fiends, but much like a visitor's idea of what human life is like, what sounds extraordinary in conception often fails in messy execution. You can pick out a number of things that, taken out of context and plucked out of the dung heap, work great on their own: a dynamic onstage duet between Sharp and Fanning that channels Chairs Missing-era Wire; some abstract interstitial animation and someone dividing into two during first-hand carnal knowledge, both of which heavily borrow from Hedwig's "The Origins of Love"; a few great lines, like cosmic Krautrock described as "if Brian Eno produced dub" and an undeniably perfect Pere Ubu dig; Kidman's stainless-steel-melting glare; virtually anything Fanning says or does, including merely looking at the camera.
But let's say that to get to all of that, you had to endure a sci-fi/coming-of-age mishmash ladened with winky-wink jokes about bodily functions and performance-art set pieces? And English actors like Ruth Wilson and Little Britain's Matt Lucas affecting flat Midwest-via-Mars accents? And an abundance of energy yet curiously little narrative momentum to push it forward or hold it all together? You'd feel like you were stuck in a spirit-of-'77 cosplay convention at best and a needy cult movie desperately seeking a cult at worst. It isn't like Mitchell has always been the most disciplined of directors; his free-form sexcapade opus Shortbus (2006) is all over the place, and it's a fucking masterpiece (literally). But nothing, not even his engagement with hormonal youth and D.I.Y. esprit de corps and high-volume rock & roll, can make this off-key ode to young love sing, or even righteously shriek. How to Talk to Girls at Parties is all feedback. It talks loud and says next to nothing.