Director: Roberto Bangura
Starring: Joanna Ward, John Thompson
If you believe what you see in The Girl with Brains in Her Feet, then Leicester was the most oversexed city in England at the start of 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 in hushed, seductive tones, and an art tutor who unveils a baby-oiled Adonis as the new life drawing project. This air of overkill could be a deliberate attempt to curb teenage pregnancy by making sure that the pupils are so bored with sex that they'll automatically choose the chess club over the back of the bike shed.
The film is a jaunty if unoriginal take on the rites-of-passage genre, taking its cue particularly 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 of hair like cheerleaders' pom-poms, and her face is a blank, nonplussed mask that breaks into a crazy smile at unexpected moments.
The story of Jack's gradual loss of innocence would be largely unexceptional without Hodges' talent for sensitively integrating simmering tensions into her screenplay. Jack is a promising athlete whose chilled-out demeanour frustrates her coach (the wonderful John Thompson from The Fast Show). Taking her aside to urge her to train for an upcoming competition, he says blithely: "You never know, the other team might have some darkies up their sleeve," and Jack chuckles along with him, 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 - an afro comb, and a plate of corn-on-the-cob ("lots of Africans and West Indians like it") - though it can't compensate for her idea of good parenting, which makes Piper Laurie in Carrie look like a pushover.
The Girl with Brains in Her Feet treads familiar territory - but with a spring in its step. Out of the blue, the director Roberto Bangura conjures moments of magical tenderness which can 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 yield to temptation? Or is it just in Leicester?
Director: Robert Duvall
Starring: Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton
Robert Duvall's direction is admirably elegant and cool, but his performance as the preacher obsessed with and possessed by God is outstanding for all the opposite reasons. Duvall plunges into the role of Sonny in the same way that Sonny is engulfed by his religion, and the effect is terrifying and entrancing all at once. Sonny's temper, which he exercises in a desperate attempt to keep hold of the wife who doesn't love him, provides his downfall; he skips town to start a new church elsewhere but the threat of the police arriving to drag him from God's work is constantly present. What's most fascinating about the picture is that Duvall the writer-director rejects the kind of feverish identification usually associated with such subjects, whether it's Privilege or Tommy or The Mosquito Coast. Instead, he observes the hysteria from a distance, and consistently refuses to manipulate his audience.
A THOUSAND ACRES
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Starring: Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jason Robards
When a crotchety but revered farmer (Jason Robards) decides to divide up his land between his three daughters, he is aghast that the youngest (Jennifer Jason Leigh) should question his actions, and promptly excludes her from proceedings - not because it's a plausible reaction, but rather because A Thousand Acres has King Lear as its template. Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer get to do a lot of crying and bonding, but their talents are wasted, and the film's final bid for tear-jerker status is cold and calculated.
THE BIG SWAP
Director: Niall Johnson
Starring: Mark Adams, Sorcha Brooks
Taking off from the key party in The Ice Storm, this follows a group of five couples whose lives disintegrate when they start swapping partners. A drab, unconvincing and preachy drama played out against Sunday supplement locations.
Director: George Tillman Jn
Starring: Vanessa L Williams, Vivica A Fox, Nia Long
A black version of Parenthood, with all the attendant moralising, sentimentality and studied eccentricity which that implies. Only the marvellously sassy Mekhi Phifer (Clockers) emerges with dignity intact.
THE GRASS HARP
Director: Charles Matthau
Starring: Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek
An adaptation of Truman Capote's novel about the lives and loves that intersect in a southern American town in the 1940s. Unfortunately, it plays rather drably, like an humdrum episode of The Waltons. A fine cast has been assembled to little effect, and Charles Matthau gets unimpressive results from directing his father, Walter.
STIFF UPPER LIPS
Director: Gary Sinyor
Starring: Peter Ustinov, Prunella Scales, Timothy West
Spoof of Merchant/Ivory movies from one of the talents responsible for Leon the Pig Farmer.