What girls really wanna have

OTHER RELEASES Circle of Friends (15) Pat O'Connor Boys on the Side (15) Herbert Ross Fresh (18) Boaz Yakin Sin Compason (no cert) Francisco J Lombardi The Man By the Shore (no cert) Raoul Peck
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I await with some impatience the first female-bonding movie set in the world of power politics, or high finance, or medical research, or crack skydiving, or the Far West (Bad Girls didn't count). While men are allowed to buddy up incidentally, while performing acts of incontrovertible world significance, it's a paradox of most female-bonding movies that they're actually all about men.

In Circle of Friends, three inhibited but spirited Irish girls leave their tiny village for Dublin to study... well, we're not quite clear exactly what. They're never seen swatting or discussing ideas, although we do hear snippets of a risqu lecture on the mating rites of Polynesians. They are, in fact, at the University of Life.

Here they all fall in love with varying success under the disapproving glare of the Catholic Church (the period is the mid-Fifties). The title is a slight misnomer: while all three actresses give very bright, winning performances, the friends don't seem particularly friendly and their stories run in parallel rather than together. The lumpy but radiant Benny (Minnie Driver, currently also to be seen in The Politician's Wife), who also narrates the film, falls for a dashing medical student (Chris O'Donnell) but is being propelled by her family into a marriage of convenience with creepy Alan Cumming. The glamorous Nan (Saffron Burrows) sets her cap at the local Protestant landlord. Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe) is an orphan who also forms a relationship (and has an underdeveloped character).

There are few great surprises here, but some passing pleasures include the quirky, humorous texture of the dialogue (screenplay by Andrew Davies from Maeve Binchy's novel) - the oddness of sex imagined as being "like someone putting their finger up your nose" - and the evocation of an area and a period where "Man Entices Neighbour's Ferret" made front page news.

The trio of friends in Boys on the Side is American and therefore boasts an impressive catalogue of physical and emotional dysfunctions. Drew Barrymore has an abusive boyfriend and is pregnant, though not necessarily by him. Then she commits manslaughter. Mary-Louise Parker is shy, withdrawn and HIV positive as the result of her sole brush with sex. Whoopi Goldberg (at last given a role to showcase her unusual talent) is a gutsy gay singer pining with unrequited love. Thrown together on a cross-country drive, they set up an unconventional mnage trois, for a while.

Written, produced and directed by men, the film is full of the kind of gynae stuff that's supposed to preoccupy women whenever they're alone together: abortions, PMT and a cringe-making debate on the best slang for "vagina". From the plaintive, plinky-plonk opening music, you know you're in for a strong dose of schmaltz (fair warning: Herbert Ross also directed The Turning Point and Steel Magnolias). A veneer of unconventionality (black lesbians are, after all, something of a novelty in a mainstream Hollywood comedy, even if they never get laid) conceals a pro-life, pro- family subtext.

Fresh is the name of a bright, quiet black kid who runs drugs through Brooklyn unharmed, as if protected by an invisible mantle. His secret amulet is childhood: nudging 13, his voice not quite broken, he's perceived by the local low-life as a mascot, not a threat, a child still, not a man. But the world is closing in on him, as he gets caught up in gang feuding and sees his friends and family picked off around him one by one. His father, who plays speed chess for booze money in Washington Park, advises him to take command of his game; to play aggressively and cease to be a pawn. Fresh embarks on a bold big-time power gambit.

This, though a tad too long, is an unusual, arresting film, and not only because its first-time director, Boaz Yakin, is white. It is shot and edited in a controlled, fractured, almost dream-like manner which shows the strangeness of the 'hood through Fresh's eyes; instead of the statutory rap soundtrack, there is an edgy modern orchestral score by Stewart Copeland. It's well-acted too (though one or two of the supporting performances are a little patchy), both by old hands like Samuel Jackson and Giancarlo Esposito and, especially, by Sean Nelson as Fresh, whose impassive, Sphinx- like face allows a wealth of emotion to flicker through.

Two films from countries whose cinema rarely reaches our screens should be welcome arrivals; alas, neither looks likely to set the Thames alight. From Peru, Sin Compasin is a modern retelling of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The protagonist, an arrogant philosophy student, believes that certain morally superior beings, ie himself, are above the law, commits murder accordingly and faces the consequences. The director, Francisco J Lombardi, says he intended no direct allusion to the excesses of the Shining Path, but the arguments over when and where extreme violence may be justified have, as in Death and the Maiden, a distinctive Latin-American resonance. Meaty, complex themes, then, but the snail's pacing and dirge- like score make this a hard slog.

The Man By the Shore is even more of a rarity: it hails from Haiti (although in the aftermath of the 1991 coup it had to be shot in the Dominican Republic). Set during the Papa Doc regime, it revisits the activities of the Tonton Macoutes as experienced by an eight-year-old girl whose parents have been forced to flee the country. It's a story fascinating in its own right; the writer-director Raoul Peck didn't need to embellish it with a frustrating obliquity (many of the details are mistily ambiguous) and a languid, arty mise-en-scne.

n All films open tomorrow: see Friday's paper for details

Sheila Johnston