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Saturday, April 24, 1999

Heart's 'Hideous Kinky' freedom

At some point before actual motherhood, many mothers resolve the following: to never be like their own moms (who made them wear sweaters over Halloween costumes), never to wear sweat pants at home, and to become the woman they've aspired to be since childhood: The Hip, Cool Mom. Who is so dazzlingly chic that her children couldn't think of calling her anything so mundane as "mom." No, they will invent a nickname so cute and rock 'n' roll that when they call her by this, strangers will stop and smile with bemused envy.

Then the children are born and the dream shatters into a million pieces and disappears in the dust, the dust kicked up by running to change diapers and wipe spills -- wearing sweat pants, of course. As for the nickname, I'm told that most mothers throw such nonsense out the window the minute their babies coo "mama" for the very first time.

Let's face it, motherhood rejects Hip like teflon rejects grease. There are many examples out there of dedicated moms, sacrificing moms, The Mom of Moms! But a mom who dances all night and can hold a cigarette like Greta Garbo: You run into one and you can only gape in astonished wonder.

Which is the prime reaction from watching "Hideous Kinky," the tale of how one mother defies the odds to go all out for Hipness, and not just plain Hipness but a cultured, exotic and enlightened one. If there was a college that specialized in motherhood, "Hideous Kinky" would be a course in itself. How to Be Cool. How to Look Great. How to Make Men and Children Love You Forever. It's themes like these that women should get serious about during the prenatal months, not Dr. Spock.

Kate Winslet plays Julia, a 25-year-old single mother with two small daughters. Julia had been living in London, waiting for the day when her lover (a much older man with a family of his own) ditches the wife and comes running to live with her. No such thing happens, and, tired of everything, she relocates herself and the kids to Morocco. For Julia, this is a move toward spirituality and what she calls "annihilation of the ego." She has plans to study under a Muslim Sufi and see the light. In the meantime, she must make ends meet by peddling handmade dolls on the street and haranguing her London lover to send more funds.

Her elder daughter Bea (Bella Reza) is 7, an age to look upon a mother and start criticizing. Bea longs for a "normal life," with set hours, school and a nifty bookbag. She resents the fact that her mom obviously cares for none of these things. This makes Bea nervous. It's not easy having a Hip Mom who sleeps in the nude, has a Muslim boyfriend (Said Tagmahoui) and insists, "You can do whatever you want, darling." It's not easy living in a strange foreign apartment with only one communal bathroom.

Bea's younger sister Lucy (Carrie Mullan) is more supportive of their mother, but even she expresses doubts as to what annihilating the ego means exactly. It certainly doesn't seem to have anything to do with square meals.

Still Julia forges ahead, convinced that wandering on the edge of destitution in Morocco is far better than the English life she left behind, of office work and baby sitters and her daughters always sitting in front of the television.

Then Bea asks to stay behind and go to school, taken into the care of a wealthy English couple, while mom and Lucy go on a trek to seek out a Sufi. Julia says yes, since she believes in people doing what they want. When after a month she and Lucy arrive back in Marrakech, the couple has gone and Bea is nowhere to be found.

Whether one should see this as blatant child abuse or another in a series of enviable mother-daughter adventures, remains debatable down to the last minute. Director Gillies MacKinnon and Esther Freud, who wrote the novel on which all this is based, are kind to Julia, though. No big tragedies to teach her cruel lessons, or even dent her enthusiasm for a different and more exotic life. With her escapades unfolding against a splendid Morocco backdrop where her children roam free, draped in handmade outfits of the happiest colors, it begins to seem that most of Julia's choices were the right ones.

Winslet started working for this movie as soon as she got off the set of "Titanic." Tanned and disheveled, she cuts a very different figure from her previous role, but how she shines in this one. The chemistry between her and the two girls is startling -- they obviously adore each other so much it fills you with longing: to be a mother or a daughter or just relive your childhood over again.

I wouldn't even mind being unhip.

"Hideous Kinky" opens today at Cinema Rise in Shibuya.

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