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Hideous Kinky and Learning to Better Love My Mum

Hideous Kinky and Learning to Better Love My Mum

Does every child just want to be normal? Looking back on the anarchic upbringing of Bea and Lucy in Gilles McKinnon’s wanderlust slice of life Hideous Kinky, Annie Lord comes to terms with a very standard upbringing by her own admission and the lessons learned about love.

A well-spoken English mother sits with her children, and using a needle and thread she sews eyes into a rag doll’s face. She has others like it, and sells them on the streets of Marrakesh to make money for food and rent. The woman wears a purple kaftan, knotty hair, and the carefree glow of someone who has recently decided to stop shaving her armpit hair. Her two daughters look equally scatty but entirely less warmed to their circumstances. “When can we have rice pudding again?” says the smallest one, “Don’t we want to come home?”. When her mother ignores her, the girl repeats: “Don’t we want to go home, Mum?”.

This scene opens Gillies MacKinnon’s Hideous Kinky, which follows Julia (Kate Winslet) as she takes her two daughters Bea and Lucy to Morocco after finding her poet husband in bed with another woman. Using his child support cheques to fund their travels, Julia goes in search of an Islamic mystic called The Sufi, with the hope that his philosophy will guide her towards the “annihilation of the ego”, “freedom from pain” and a “rich inner life”.

Hideous Kinky belongs to a sub-genre of films that emerged in the 1990s, where it was the baby-boomer, sandal-wearing hippies who needed to grow up – not their children. In the ’70s, romantic movies told stories about men and women with small sunglasses and big hearts. You could see their children, sunburnt, mop-haired, called names like Ember and Elias, acting as solemn witnesses to the knee-high sludge of Glastonbury “before it became commercialised” – remember the commune in Easy Rider and the hallucinogens in Psych-Out? But with the ’90s came a slew of cinema that movies what happened when those children grow old enough to tell their side of the story. Most notable was James Ivory’s A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, which, based on an autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones (whose father raised his family as bohemian exiles in Paris), explored the consequences of giving kids total freedom when what they really crave is guidance and routine. Hideous Kinky is based on the novel by Esther Freud, whose mother, Bernadine, took Esther and her sister Bella to Morocco in 1967, and stayed for two years, living on checks from Bernadine’s lover, the painter Lucian Freud.

Watching Hideous Kinky as a bored suburban teenager, overprotected by my parents and living in a town with little more than a post office, a Shell garage and an above-average-sized roundabout, I felt immensely jealous of Lucy and Bea’s anarchic upbringing. Somehow I managed to remain oblivious to their anger and resentment, even considering the way Bea repeatedly screams “I want a satchel” in an attempt to impose a semblance of order. I resented that I had never hitch-hiked on the back of trucks driving through the desert, watched drumming until the stars speckled the sky, or skipped school to run around crumbling street markets.

I was with my Mum on the living room sofa when I first watched the film. I don’t remember how the argument started, but I remember her defending herself by saying, “When you’re a kid you just want to be normal”, before I snapped the part of my leg that was resting against hers away in disagreement. Unlike Bea and Lucy, my upbringing was marked with care so boundless it was suffocating. My parents would only let me go to house parties if they could pick me up at 12pm (which was actually code for 10:30pm). On one holiday, a friend and I went into the pub garden we were at with my family, and 30 minutes later my Mum came rushing out, tears soaking the neckline of her t-shirt, yelling, “We thought you had been sex trafficked!”. There was also the time the school bus was slightly late, and my Mum rang First Leeds to locate me so that everyone heard her over the loudspeaker trembling: “Is Annie on there? She’s blonde, about 13 years old, she has a Nike backpack”. My teenage years felt like my fists hitting against the soft sponge of a padded cell.

I felt like my shyness, the way my face flushed red when a teacher picked me in class, how I giggled uncontrollably near boys I liked, and my inability to do anything but agree with everyone around me, stemmed from my very standard life, and I resented my Mum and Dad for this.

I now realise my Mum was right and I was wrong – kids do just want to be normal. Julia’s actions aren’t freeing, as they force Bea and Lucy to be the grownups when it should be the other way around. In one scene we see Julia participating in a group religious exercise, as the locals hum loudly and create drum rhythms, her eyes roll back into her skull and she goes limp. Whether she was actually writhing in ecstasy or just copying everyone around her remains unclear. Either way, Bea and Lucy watch with tight-lipped embarrassment. In the next scene, they confront her, “I have to go to school” Bea announces.

“You don’t have to do anything” replies Julia.

“I have to go to school”.

“Okay then”.

“No I can’t, I need a satchel which I don’t have, I need a white shirt which I don’t have, I need a white skirt which I don’t have, so you see, I can’t.” Bea doesn’t want to see an acid tab melt and fizz at the back of her Mum’s mouth or hear her read tarot cards to men she fancies. She wants to get her SATS and have a teacher commend her spelling. Since her Mum won’t set those boundaries, she can’t take on the role of rebellious one. Instead, she must account for her parent’s slackness.

Bea and Lucy’s thirst for the banality of routine increases throughout the film. When Julia talks about her desire to learn the teachings of The Sufi – a journey which involves days of fasting, silent prayer, and spiritual reinvention – Bea becomes concerned she might lose her Mum. “Will we still have a garden and mash potato?”, she asks. When they run out of food and money halfway across the desert, Julia’s boyfriend Bilal robs sardines from a hotel. The fish makes the girls sick.  When a prostitute steals Julia’s towel and pink trousers, she lobs a peach into the woman’s eyeball and even while Bea and Lucy scream at her to “leave it”, Julia throws a jug at the floor, the hardened clay slicing open her hand.

Julia might have been searching for The Sufi, but it’s Bea she should have consulted for enlightenment. She sees everything her mother misses: that Bilal has a wife, that the child support cheques from their Dad are not going to come through, that they need to go home. The first time I saw Hideous Kinky I failed to see the hypocrisy in Julia’s actions – the way she wears pink glossy lipstick to meet a Sheikh of a mosque, as though inner peace comes with well-outlined lips. Or how she only leaves when she can’t pay for the medication for her sick child because, as the pharmacist points out, pharmaceutical companies aren’t cheap: “You western countries are not kind to Africans”.

Kids should be the ones getting told off for their mistakes and not the other way around. Mum would pick me up, the interior light of her Renault Megane on while she did crosswords in the car parks of sticky-floored pubs – creating the very reason I wanted to stay out later and drink more cider. If she had been in the pub with me, I might have ended up craving the squish of a warm sofa and a hot water bottle. The other day, she rang me and I didn’t pick up, and so she texted my friend saying: “Are you with Annie? She hasn’t picked up … all day :/ x” She still annoys me, constantly sending me applications for jobs I don’t want, and waiting up late until I get back from clubs, hurrying into the hall with puffed purple under eye-bags whenever I visit home. But on reflection, Julia’s parenting style has made me so glad my Mum was normal, not letting me go too far into the sea in case my foot got trapped in a rock, packing foldup flats in case I took my stilettos off in TigerTiger and repeating that the juice from the chicken ‘must run clear’  – so I could grow up in my own way, to be lazy, disenfranchised, and hideously kinky.

Annie Lord (@annielord8) is a freelance writer based in London. She has written for Vice, Dazed and Confused, The Quietus, Broadly and more.

READ ME is a platform for female-led writing on film hosted by Girls on Tops. Louisa Maycock (@louisamaycock) is Commissioning Editor and Ella Kemp (@efekemp) is Contributing Editor.




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