“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is a sweet, unholy mess, the kind that could only come from the unswept mind of John Cameron Mitchell, writer/star of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” True, the film is extrapolated from a 2006 short story by the celebrated fantasy writer Neil Gaiman (“The Sandman,” “Coraline,” “Neverwhere”), but this puckish punk-era alien love story has been thoroughly Mitchell-ized, meaning it seems to be teetering on the happiest of orgies. Throw out any expectations you might have of coherent narrative structure or directorial control, and you might have a pretty good time.
It’s the old boy-meets-girl set-up, except that the boy, Enn (Alex Sharp), is an awkward teen misfit and the girl, Zan (Elle Fanning), is an extraterrestrial. The year is 1977, the Queen’s Jubilee is riling up the safety-pinned youth of London, and both Enn and Zan are in open rebellion against the hive mind of their respective societies. It’s just that in Zan’s case, the hive mind is literal, since the aliens who have taken over a derelict Croydon mansion are divided into color-coded tribes each demanding strict obedience to an Elder. Once adapted to her human form, the wide-eyed Zan finds herself craving . . . individuality.
Same with Enn and his grotty friends, tall Vic (A.J. Lewis) and wide John (Ethan Lawrence), although they scrupulously measure their distance from the mainstream by who has sold out today. (“The Clash signed with CBS? They’re dead to me.”) The boys stumble into the mansion expecting a punk-club after-party, try desperately to appear cool to the latex-clad “Americans,” and find dance-trance bliss (John), kinky alien sex (Vic), and true-blue love (Enn and Zan).
What’s Nicole Kidman doing here as Boadicea, a tatty club impresario and wannabe style guru who envisions Zan as the Next Big Thing? Your guess is as good as mine, although she and Mitchell go back to “Rabbit Hole” (2010), the very fine grieving-parent drama that is probably the director’s most conventional movie. He’s better known for “Hedwig” in all its stage and screen incarnations, and also for “Shortbus” (2006), his polyamorous pansexual playpen of a movie. (Mitchell also recently popped up in a few “Mozart in the Jungle” episodes as an imperious downtown choreographer.) He’s a pop provocateur, or he would be if he had the attention span.
As punk-inflected alien love stories go, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” falls somewhere between “Earth Girls are Easy” (1988) and “Liquid Sky” (1982) in coherence and commercial veneer. (The latter film, a downtown classic of the Mudd Club era, has recently been restored and reissued on DVD and Blu-Ray; it’s a glorious edgy period piece.) The problem is that Mitchell and co-screenwriter Philippa Goslett aren’t sure where to go from Gaiman’s brief template, so they go everywhere: to a meeting with Enn’s Mum (Joanna Scanlon), to Zan’s punk-club breakthrough, and to a messy showdown between the alien Elders and Boadicea’s pink-haired army that screeches to a halt when half the cast falls asleep.
It doesn’t help that Sharp is 29 rather than half that age. It does help that Fanning, at 20, is closer to the mark and manages to expertly and eerily walk the tightrope of her character’s innocence and anger. Fanning also stars in “Mary Shelley,” opening in Boston this week, and for all her surface naivete — the sense that she’s some sort of acting unicorn who has wandered into a sunlit glade — she is proving to be one of the smarter and more intuitive young performers around.
For audiences willing to roll with it, what saves “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is Mitchell’s great good humor and his belief that everyone (and every planet) is one good bonk away from salvation, whether that involves tripartite alien sex, interspecies impregnation, or the more standard variations. If the message gets a little mixed up in all the delight, it’s all part of the party. Trying to decipher her new boyfriend’s punkish philosophy of life, Zan tells Enn, “There are contradictions in your metaphor. But I am moved by it.” That’s a better review of the movie than anything I could come up with.
HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell. Written by Mitchell and Philippa Goslett, based on a story by Neil Gaiman. Starring Alex Sharp, Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman, Ruth Wilson. At Coolidge Corner. 102 minutes. R (Language throughout, sexual content, some drug use and nudity)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.