Men Are From From Mars, Women Are From Venus, a best-selling early-'90s relationships guidebook argued. How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a sweet, slight comic fantasy expanded from an early-aughts Neil Gaiman short story, knows the truth is far more complex: Men and Women Are from Earth, Members of an Advanced Extraterrestrial Species on a Reconnaissance Mission Here While Temporarily Wearing the Bodies of Men and Women are from... well, we never find out where they're from, exactly. But every planet has its misfits.
How to Talk to Girls is set in the South London borough of Croydon, which matters a little, and in 1977, which matters a lot. (The film was shot in Sheffield, perhaps because it looks more like late-seventies Croydon than present-day Croydon does.) Punk is in full, safety-pinned bloom. Adolescent cartoonist En (Broadway veteran Alex Sharp) publishes a fanzine, Virus, with his two mates; they're regulars at a club/art space run by Queen Boadicea, the grande dame dowager of this small pond. The Queen is played with a not-quite-maternal wariness by Nicole Kidman, punked out like Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner—which was of course made by a Brit right around the time punk was hitting its hard-coded termination date.
Seeking another grimy rock-club party, the three boys find themselves instead Pied-Pipered towards a modernist Warholian Exploding Plastic Inevitable-type-deal in a handsome old manor house. The music sounds more like Kraftwerk than the Sex Pistols or the Damned. Most of the revelers are performing an elaborate group dance; all are dressed in color-coded body-hugging latex. En's swaggering pal Vic (Abraham Lewis) goes straight for Stella (Ruth Wilson), the most sexually assertive girl at the dance. But being the more bashful, inquisitive sort—the kind who grow up to be writers—En ends up chatting with Zan (Elle Fanning), who's grown weary of the Prime Directive-type-regulations governing her exposure to earthlings while she's here on Earth. Their meet-cute leaves Zan with a slightly flummoxed vocabulary, wherein the kinds of worldly experiences she seeks are collectively referred to as "punk."
That's roughly where Gaiman's story leaves it. But director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) and co-screenwriter Philippa Goslett have tricked out the tale with a proper beginning and ending, and populated it with appealingly dimensional people and aliens. They've added Kidman's character, as well as the marvelous Joanna Scanlan as En's lonely single mum—who still, as she is moved to remind even her own ungrateful boy, has a clitoris. On the other side of the species divide, we have Tom Brooke as a sympathetic "parentteacher" trying to balance Zan's lust for freedom with the well-being of the collective. ("Do you have something you'd like to interjaculate?" he asks her during one of their meetings.)