movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell


(© 1998 Stratosphere Entertainment. All rights reserved.)

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Hideous Kinky
Six-year-old Lucy doesn't like Morocco. It can't give her the things she needs--rice pudding, a leather satchel stuffed with books, stiff white shirts, and oxford shoes that squeak when you walk in them. This little girl needs London, though her mother calls it cold and sad. Her older sister, Bea, believes their father has abandoned them. At Christmas, he mails packages wrapped in silky paper. Inside, they find green apples, party hats, and boxing gloves. Bea only wants one present--a school where she can "learn things." What she's learning in the desert doesn't add up to much.

Their mother, Julia (Kate Winslet), moved to Marrakech in search of spiritual enlightenment. It's 1972, the summer of love has long ended. The giddy optimism of the '60s has soured. Those who seek themselves must find it elsewhere. While Julia rejects the "selfish" nature of material things, her children teach her how much they matter. Julia wants to travel to Algeria and speak with ancient mystics. Meanwhile, her lonely girls keep griping about going home. They're hungry and tired. The desert is an enormous place with too much sky. You could get lost in its stars, like salt spilled on a black tablecloth.

They say travel is a teacher. Julia might believe this. But her children are whispering little words of wisdom, if she'd pause to listen. They'd chant a mantra that equals the opposite of Julia's hippie anthems--that structure isn't necessarily bad. Money means more than we admit. Lasting relationships feel healthier than fleeting ones.

Hideous Kinky commendably sketches its unconventional family with an objective eye (and none of the romanticism one might predict). People are neither good nor bad. They're simply human. Many times Julia puts her needs before her children. Then, in the listless manner of many young mothers, she remembers how grown-ups behave. Her lover, Bilal, (the roguish Said Taghmaoui from Mathieu Kassovitz's Hate) turns flips in the market square for quick cash. When he attempts to meet the girls' needs for father and family head, he fails, but not without valiance. He's not your usual thief, ridden with racial stereotypes. He's a confused child, like Lucy, like Bea, like Julia.

Along the way, they meet a wealthy expatriate family (including French thespian Pierre Clementi) who have fashioned a continental oasis in the desert. Julia, in her quest for "pure joy, blissful emptiness, no pain," decides to ditch her eldest daughter and take to the road. Free of responsibility, her elation is echoed by the drug-addled hitchhiker she encounters, posed Christ-like in the back of a speeding pickup truck.

Hideous Kinky is based on the 1992 novel by Sigmund Freud's great-granddaughter, Esther. While the book is autobiographically told through the younger child, the film lacks a specific reference. Lucy might serve as the ideal narrator, lacking condemnation for the mother. Instead, the film floats between contrasting attitudes and confusing points of view. The opening dream sequence is a race through a maze of khaki-colored corridors, exemplifying a child's darkest fear of becoming lost in unfamiliar territory. For no particular reason, the film switches perspectives and credits this dream to the mother.

The film probably worries that audiences won't sympathize with the self-indulgent, hash-smoking Julia, so they soften her character as protagonist. Julia has no direction and, therefore, no all-encompassing need to drive the story. Her children, however, are teeming with the desire to return home; they are the more obvious choice as heroines. This is one of many problems in adapting a book to screen. Chronology is another dilemma.

Hideous Kinky (named for the nonsense words the girls giggle, making English a foreign language) brings to mind A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, James Ivory's adaptation by another writer of famous parentage, Kaylie Jones, which balances the emotional boundaries of two different cultures. In Hideous Kinky, the steady routine of London contrasts with the wayward rhythms of North Africa in a kind of Dionysian/Apollonian harmony.

Director Gillies MacKinnon crams his setting with sensory overload. The desert becomes a fifth character. Dust rises like eraser bloom on a chalkboard. Dunes drift like leaves. The soundtrack wails, "Don't you want somebody to love?" and the answer, of course, is yes. The film is flawed but beautiful. So are its characters, in search of the "annihilation of the ego." That's why the happy ending feels so tragic, like a Christmas present filled with clothes that no longer fit.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]