Based on the book by Meera Syal, Anita and Me is a beautiful coming of age story narrated by Meena, a British Asian girl growing up in the West Midlands. She’s the only brown girl she knows (besides family). This, plus her burgeoning creativity, make it really hard to make friends. So, she’s thrilled when local bad girl Anita (who’s white and blonde, the way Meena wishes she was) starts hanging out with her. Things quickly sore between the two BFFs; Tollingham is reaching the end of its days, Anita’s family is dysfunctional, and the ever-present racial tensions eventually drive the girls apart.
One of the best things about this film is its lovely handling of race. One of the first scenes features Meena reading out loud a carefully written, vivid story describing the town as a whole. Her teacher mocks her for it, though immediately after Meena mentions to her mother that it won 2nd place in the school’s essay contest. That scene made me hoot out loud — when I was in private school, there were many times something similar happened to me. You know you’re the best, you get the scores to prove you’re the best, but in that face-to-face interaction? That’s where racists find a way to strike. They can’t beat your brain but they can beat your soul. Later on in the film, they prove they can beat your body, too, when one of Meena’s family’s friends is the victim of a racially motivated murder. One of the awesome atmospherics is the way local complicity is emphasized in creating an environment where racism is acceptable, from the casual way people name their dogs racial slurs to the local shop-owner’s refusal to raise money for black babies.
One of the (many) awesome things about Anita and Me is its examination of girlhood and friendships, as well as its treatment of male/female relationships. Anita’s from a world where women are nothing without men; pregnancy’s inevitable and sex is supposed to hurt. Meena’s family loves her; her parents never treat each other with anything less than kindness and mutual respect. Plus, her family loves the learnin’ — at one point, Meena’s Aunt Shaila begins listing off their academic and professional accomplishments, joking that their children see them now and have no idea who they were. For them, it’d be silly to view Meena’s value as total about her sexual desirability. Plus, they take it for granted that, no matter what, she’s got a future, something no one’s really predicting for Anita. How can these two very different girls become friends?
They begin by sharing secrets, putting together a secret den in the middle of a forbidden wood, where they share dreams about their futures. They laugh with each other. They laugh at each other. They love each other, and they need each other, and when it becomes clear to Meena that a drowning girl will pull you under too, she breaks down and asks the local Yeti for help.