Films: Dreams of love without muddle

Also showing: Hideous Kinky (15) Living Out Loud (15) How Stella Got Her Groove Back (15) Pecker (15) A Scene at the Sea (no cert) Appetite (15)

Hideous" and "kinky" are two words that Esther Freud liked to roll around her mouth as a child. She once chanted them "softly to the rhythm of the wheels" of the train that took her away from Morocco. All the words, smells and seasons of her time in that place were documented by Freud in her novel Hideous Kinky (1992), an account of her progress through Morocco with her sister and their young, penniless mother in the early 1970s. Some critics got their knickers in a punitive twist because in the book she recalls moments of abandonment and the odd lump of cannabis. To them, these moments were bigger than Freud's mother's desire to reach for something keener than a one-bedroom flat in south London, bigger than her desire to ease open her family's future just a fraction.

Gillies MacKinnon's film of the book is terrific. It stars Kate Winslet as Mum, and Bella Riza and Carrie Mullan as the young daughters who quite like Morocco but would rather go home to "mashed potato and a garden". There isn't much by way of a plot - there's a love affair, and a pilgrimage to a Sufi commune - but the film, like the book, is more a collection of reminiscences seen through the eyes of a little girl.

MacKinnon's concern for the life and mood of his characters keeps his film from feeling episodic or patchy. He has cast child actors who really look and really see. He charts their strong faces, their hands covered with a mucky tan, their small, bold limbs. Sometimes, his celebrative camera is like the poem by e e cummings that laughs "thy wrists/ are holy!" MacKinnon's film is absolutely in keeping with the spirit of the novel - vivid and curious, with the skill and guts to also be imprecise.

Winslet is convincing as a mother, and as someone dreaming of spiritual abundance and love without muddle. She acts the pants off any of her other performances. In one amazing moment, she goes to collect one of her daughters, who has been staying with friends in Marrakesh. The owner of the house tells her that these friends left weeks ago, and he hasn't any idea where her daughter is. We see Winslet's face flush a colour people only go when their bowels clot with panic. Her hair is poker-straight, but somehow gives the effect of also standing on end. The minute muscles which control her usually beautiful, opinionated mouth seem to be protesting and contracting. The shot only lasts for two seconds, maybe three, but I'm still touched by the thought of it.

In Living Out Loud, Holly Hunter plays a recent divorcee who is holed up in her smart New York apartment, fantasising about chucking herself out of the window ("all our friends were his friends"). She gets friendly with the lift attendant (Danny DeVito), himself just about broken by the death of his daughter. This quiet film is based on two short stories by Chekhov, particularly "The Kiss", which is all about over-focusing on other people and missing yourself by miles. DeVito is particularly good as a man suddenly committing himself to everything that interests him. Although the film meanders and unnecessarily sugars its finale, it still works as something you might watch late in the afternoon when you're not up to being emotionally surprised. A lot of the revelations are those you've always known but rarely think about ("It's amazing the things you find yourself agreeing to"). But the motor behind Living Out Loud is actually more like something Chekhov once wrote about the stage, a place where he felt it was "impossible to walk without stumbling. There will be great misunderstandings and deep disappointments, but you must stubbornly, fanatically follow your own way".

How Stella Got Her Groove Back is about a 40-year-old single mother (Angela Bassett) who is depressed until she goes on holiday to Jamaica and romps with a 20-year-old chef (Taye Diggs). This is a bit like watching that Diet Coke advert for two hours. All the women in the cast are obliged to do nothing but pant over the leading man. There is some underwhelming chat about friendship, but the real question - how and why one might maintain a relationship with someone so much younger than oneself - is drowned out by the vowels on the soul soundtrack, which go on and on, like the moans of a dying cow.

Pecker is much more fun. Edward Furlong plays a fervid amateur photographer who lives to photograph his barmy(-ish) Baltimore neighbours - his granny with her Virgin Mary doll; his gobby girlfriend (Christina Ricci). One day a local cafe exhibits his work and Manhattan art dealer Lili Taylor works herself into a froth over this handsome documentarist of life outside the Apple. Soon Furlong is turning his camera on the critics. Hee hee.

John Waters films (Hairspray, Serial Mom) like to cultivate bad taste, and shout that it is not an offence to be strange. But lately there's been a lot of blancmange in his work too, and Pecker is really all about the hot magic to be found in your local community, if you're lucky. But Ricci stays familiarly smooth but untamed. She always looks like she's about to send a note around class accusing the teacher of being a machine. She's great.

Prompted by the success of his extraordinary Hana-Bi, Takeshi Kitano's comedy about a garbage collector who turns surfer, A Scene at the Sea, finally gets a release. Far less lucid and tender is George Milton's Appetite, which is set in a fading hotel, full of disparate characters looking pained for unspecific reasons. It's a film that likes nothing more than the sound of its own angst.

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