Young love has been used to great effect as a canvas for the fantastical, and How to Talk to Girls at Parties follows a long line of narratives in which the object of desire is literally a zombie or vampire or superhero, wink, wink. In this case, she’s Zan, an alien in the body of Elle Fanning, who is visiting Earth with her colony, on what amounts to an intergalactic school trip. The boy unlucky enough to fall in love with her is Enn (Alex Sharp) a young punk-rock fanboy who wants to smash the system, but can’t get the nerve to talk to his school crush.
While in search of an after-party, Enn and his friends John and Vic (Ethan Lawrence and Abraham Lewis) stumble across what looks like a performance-art collective, but is actually the temporary home of a visiting group of aliens. (The aliens seem to be less into punk, more into Krautrock.) There he meets Zan, a rebellious young alien who wishes to be more than just a “tourist” on earth, and sees Enn as her ticket out of the hive.
Writer-director John Cameron Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett, loosely adapting a short story by Neil Gaiman, are working with elements that seem like a recipe for magic: raucous basement shows, outlandishly dressed aliens, and all the fizzy awkwardness of adolescent romance. But the script is unfocused, and seems insecure about how compelling Zan and Enn’s relationship is, constantly veering off to focus on alien politics and Enn’s family history, when a little punk-alien courtship would have been fun enough to linger on. Nicole Kidman’s supporting turn as scenester grande dame Boadicea is plenty kooky, but could have been cut out completely at no loss to the film. The script is frantically trying to build a whole world when a modest house would do.
Worse, the film looks dreadful, and the CG effects are a legitimate eyesore: An opening animated sequence is so tacky, it took me a while before I realized it wasn’t just another logo animation for a random film fund. The effects even hijack the film’s bright spots: An energetic sequence in which Zan is revealed to have a talent for improvisational art soon turns into incomprehensible iTunes-visualization-grade CG psychedelia (which I think is supposed to represent Zan and Enn consummating their love, but I can’t be sure). The vibrant, imaginative costumes are the only aspects of the production whose overall taste level feels right; like other Gaiman-adjacent productions, it’s nowhere near as weird, funny, or edgy as it thinks it is.
Fanning’s breathy voice and fairylike countenance make her obviously suited for the role of a teen alien, but her talents — and Kidman’s, and Ruth Wilson as a seductive superior alien — exceed the script. As the plot descends into a too cute metaphor about the alien colony eating their young, you start to feel embarrassed for everyone onboard, flung into crazy town without any substance to hang on to. The concept had incredible potential, but Mitchell missed the mark by a wide margin. Luckily for Fanning and Kidman, they’re in approximately 18 other movies on the Croisette this year. They’ll recover.