Film: A sex siren for the 70s

Also Showing; The Girl with Brains in Her Feet Roberto Bangura (15) n Stiff Upper Lips Gary Sinyor (15) n A Thousand Acres Jocelyn Moorhouse (15) n The Grass Harp Charles Matthau (15) n Soul Food George Tillman, Jr (15) n Hotel de Love Craig Rosenberg (15) n The Big Swap Niall Johnson (18)

IF YOU believe what you see in The Girl with Brains in Her Feet, then Leicester was the most oversexed city in England in the 1970s. No wonder the film's teenage heroine Jack (Joanna Ward) is in such a tizzy with her hormones - at just 13 years old, she has to contend with an English teacher who reads the raciest passages of Lady Chatterley's Lover aloud to his class, and an art tutor who unveils a baby-oiled Adonis as the new life drawing project. This could be a deliberate attempt to make the pupils so bored with sex that they'll automatically choose the chess club over the back of the bicycle shed.

The film is a jaunty if unoriginal take on the rites of passage genre, taking its cue from P'Tang Yang Kipperbang, while cashing in on the current 1970s revival (The Ice Storm, Boogie Nights, the forthcoming Velvet Goldmine). It's brightened by a lively script from Jo Hodges and a star-spangled performance by Joanna Ward. This young actress sparkles - she has joyous bushy bunches, and her face is a blank mask that breaks into a crazy smile at unexpected moments.

The story of Jack's loss of innocence would be unexceptional without Hodges' talent for intregrating simmering tensions into her screenplay. Jack is a promising athlete whose chilled-out demeanour frustrates her coach (John Thompson). Taking her aside to urge her to train for a competition, he says blithely, "You never know, the other team might have some darkies up their sleeve," and Jack chuckles along, which might not be notable were she not of mixed-race parentage herself. Jack can't claim to possess a sense of cultural identity, but then she doesn't know she's entitled to one either. Her white mother helpfully introduces exotic elements at the tea-table - a plate of corn-on-the-cob ("lots of Africans and West Indians like it").

The Girl with Brains in Her Feet treads familiar territory - but with a spring in its step. The director, Roberto Bangura, conjures moments of magical tenderness that catch you off-guard; I liked the echo of The Wizard of Oz in the scene where Jack tries on her snazzy red running shoes and clicks her heels, but Bangura's neatest trick is to time the shot of Jack unzipping a classmate's trousers with the wailing siren which heralds the start of "Blockbuster" by The Sweet. Doesn't everyone hear a siren the first time they sample the sins of the flesh? Or is it just in Leicester?

Stumbling across one British film a week that you feel able to recommend is unusual enough. Finding two is a miracle. And when one of them is made by Gary Sinyor, who co-directed the abysmal Leon the Pig Farmer - well, pig farmers might fly. Yet Sinyor's new picture Stiff Upper Lips is one of the most cheerfully pleasurable British movies in recent memory. Fluffy in tone but painfully precise in its observations, the film is a series of inspired riffs on Merchant/Ivory productions. At one point, a toff is caught by his mother (Prunella Scales) with his nose in the new Forster. "Any good?" she enquires. "I find it difficult to relate to the characters," he replies, "but the locations are enchanting."

Sinyor and his co-writer Paul Simpkin have crafted at least 10 sublime, pristine gags, none of which I would care to spoil by repeating, though the performances deserve credit, especially Robert Portal as the twitty, repressed homosexual, and Brian Glover as the earthy peasant who props up the bar in his local pub, Scum of the Earth.

A Thousand Acres is King Lear with combine harvesters. Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jennifer Jason Leigh are the troublesome daughters, who get to do lots of bonding and crying, all the while playing with their hair and hugging themselves - the sort of routine that impresses Academy voters but not me. I felt most sorry for Jason Robards - imagine being cast as Lear and then finding out you've got lines like "You bitches drive me goddamn crazy!"

The rest of the week's releases deserve only the most cursory of mentions, and none of your money. The Grass Harp transforms a Truman Capote novel into a below-par episode of The Waltons, with a young boy (Edward Furlong) maturing among a town of Southern eccentrics, including Walter Matthau (the director's father) and Jack Lemmon, the Two Ronnies of American cinema. Soul Food is a black Parenthood, with all the sentimentality and studied eccentricity which this implies.

Hotel de Love is an Australian romantic comedy severely hampered by the fact that its leading man looks like a more deranged Anthony Perkins. Last and least, The Big Swap is a starchy British drama in which five couples swap partners; it's so dull, it could give wife-swapping and group sex a bad name.

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