Dir: Metin Huseyin. UK. 2002. 93mins.
With its blend of elements from the successful recent comedies East Of East and Bend It Like Beckham, Anita And Me is intent on riding on the current public appetite for all things Asian-British. In the UK, where it world premiered at the London Film Festival and is released on Nov 22, this tale of the riotous friendship between a nine-year-old Asian girl and a slightly older, blonde bombshell will attract initial attention on the strength of Meera Syal, the popular comedienne who wrote the script based on her own acclaimed semi-autobiographical memoir (Syal also acts as co-producer and plays one of the minor characters).
However, much of her book's distinctive tone and texture has not survived the transition to the screen, which transforms the original's bittersweet, slightly ironic voice into one of relentlessly perky feelgood comedy. While the result is an immediate audience-pleaser, it's also a thin, unfocussed piece that can't count on a unanimously enthusiastic critical response or solid longer-term prospects. Outside Britain, where it opens on Nov 22, the salty West Midlands accents could be a further impediment.
Unlike other recent products of the Asian-British wave, the story is set, not in one of the industrial conurbations where Britain's immigrant community has been concentrated, but in a semi-rural former mining village in the Black Country outside Birmingham. Here, in the early 1970s, (the film is set a few years later than the novel), Meena, the young narrator, and her smart professional parents, Hindi Indians from the Punjab (Ayesha Dharker, Bhaskar), are the only non-white family in town.
Although their social life revolves around endless Hindi festivities and crowds of rowdy "uncles" and "aunties" visiting from the nearby cities, Meena (Uppal) speaks broken Punjabi with a West Midlands accent and prefers fishfingers and ketchup for tea to mattar paneer. She develops a friendship with (and a schoolgirl crush on) gorgeous, pouting Anita (Brewster) who runs an all-girl gang called the Wenches.
The film follows the development of this unlikely relationship, lightly suggesting that it might temporarily cross racial boundaries but that the class barrier between Meena, an upwardly mobile, grammar school candidate, and Anita with her white trash background is much harder to overcome.
However, Anita And Me doesn't care much to delve far into these more serious areas or indeed to develop much of a strong narrative through-line. In essence, it's a series of loose skits portraying village life and characters, often in the broadest terms. Seasoned players like Lynn Redgrave and Mark Williams have fun with their roles, respectively the mad old bat running the village stores and a fatuous rock 'n' roll vicar, but many of these secondary figures remain stereotypes (with the honourable exception of Zohra Segal as Meena's outrageous granny).
In the crucial role of Meena, Uppal has a lovely mobile clown's face, but is clearly struggling to cope with her huge swathes of voice-over narration; as Anita, Brewster is a feisty, sexy presence in an underdeveloped role, which disappears altogether from the story at a critical point. Metin Huseyin's direction strains a little too hard for humour. Bathed in a warm sunny light, the production design makes attractive use of the period's kitsch-nostalgia elements, oiled by a bouncy soundtrack of groovy vintage hits.
Prod cos: Portman Film, The Film Council, BBC Films, Starfield
UK dist: Icon
Int'l sales: Portman Film
Exec prods: Paul Trijbits, David M Thompson, Peter Carlton, Bill Allan, Tristan Whalley
Prods: Paul Raphael
Co-prod: Meera Syal
Scr: Syal, based on her novel
Cinematography: Cinders Forshaw
Prod des: Carolina Hanania
Ed: Anne Kocur
Music: Nitin Sawhney
Main cast: Anna Brewster, Chandeep Uppal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kathy Burke, Lynn Redgrave, Syal