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Film: The riddle of the minx

Take Alicia Silverstone from Clueless, transplant her to white- trash Louisiana, add some puppy fat, stir in a bitter dose of cynicism, and you have something like 16-year-old Dedee Truitt (Christina Ricci), anti-heroine of Don Roos's bracingly upfront comedy The Opposite of Sex.

Destined to become one of the great movie minxes, Dedee gets the picture off to a breezy start at her stepfather's funeral, flicking a cigarette butt into his newly dug grave, wrestling her mom to the ground, then packing up and hitting the road, handgun in tow. "If you think I'm, like, plucky and scrappy, and all I need is love, you're in over your head," she says, coolly addressing the audience. "I don't have a heart of gold, and I don't grow one later. OK?" You'd better believe it.

Dedee's insolent asides make us her confidants as she turns up on the doorstep of her gay half-brother, Bill (Martin Donovan), who's "like, the definition of a softie". You fear for him. Having installed herself chez Bill, who's too nice to make a fuss, Dedee sets to work on seducing his hunky but not-too-bright boyfriend, Matt (Ivan Sergei). Her question to him: how does he know he's not into sex with women if he's never tried it? His reply: "I've never tried communism either. Or grits."

But you can't underestimate Dedee's wiles. Once she gets pregnant, things start to get very complicated indeed. Matt and Dedee make off with Bill's money and the ashes of his late lover - as ransom, you understand - at which point Matt's ex-lover, Jason (Johnny Galecki), shows up, threatening to frame Bill for sexual harassment at school. So Bill and his schoolteacher friend, Lucia, hotfoot it to Los Angeles, where the fugitive pair have gone to ground.

If that plot sounds a little crowded, don't be alarmed. Roos is more concerned with exploring character than the mechanics of farce, and he's written a terrifically spiky script to back up his conception. With Dedee's voice at the controls, he ensures that sentimentality won't blunt the film's razor tooth, and he keeps the audience slightly off-balance throughout. Dedee booby-traps her narration with teasing bluffs, candid apercus and a sardonic contempt for film tradition: The Opposite of Sex could be seen as a coming-of-age movie, save for the fact that that Dedee hates coming- of-age movies, particularly the line: "I never was the same again after that summer." Can you blame her? Besides, one look at her sullen baby- doll features tells you she probably came of age around the time she stopped breast-feeding. The elfin Ricci does amazing work here: female roles with this much sass and swagger don't come along very often, and she takes to it with a heartless gusto.

What's more remarkable is that the film actually has two great comic performances. Dedee, having left Bill to pick up the tab for all the hell- raising she's done, isn't quite so prominent in the film's second half; instead, centre-stage is commandeered by Lucia, virtuous and responsible like Bill, and miserable with repression. As played by Lisa Kudrow, she's a bit of a scold, and knows it - we get a sense of real loneliness from her, too; perhaps all those high-minded principles have scared men off. "How does a woman get so bitter?" "Observation," she rejoins.

Continually horrified by other people's misbehaviour (of Dedee: "My God, she's the human tabloid!"), Lucia is too uptight and schoolmarmish to notice that the local sheriff (Lyle Lovett) has become sweet on her. In her role as Phoebe, the flaky folkie in Friends, Kudrow's adorable dippiness has always got on my nerves, yet she's a revelation here.

Without its ever seeming schematic, Lucia and Dedee represent the film's contrary poles: as the latter sees it, sex ends in babies and relationships, whereas she just wants the opposite of that - namely untrammelled, promiscuous fun. Lucia, on the other hand, regards love and companionship and fulfilment as the highest goals, and scorns those who selfishly pursue their own ends. As she tells one such offender: "This is how we do things on the planet Maturia. We have much to teach you." In the end, of course, the definitions blur as both women find that they can get themselves snagged somewhere in between love and sex, between pleasing yourself and doing unto others. It's, like, life.

Driven along by a jaunty jazz score, Roos's film sags a little in its final third as lessons are, however so ironically, handed around. But you wouldn't begrudge the feelgood ending. Roos has managed something quite unusual in this film (his debut, incidentally). While he evidently likes his characters, he doesn't bust a gut trying to make us like them. They all, to one degree or another, exasperate, and offend, and occasionally appal - even saintly Bill and his forbearance had me grinding my teeth - yet we don't mind extending them our sympathy, precisely because none of them ever asks for it.

In the end, it feels like an optimistic movie. Who'd have guessed from the title that the opposite of sex was actually something good?