With her bright red straw hair perpetually askew and her offcenter gait, Polly seems to be one of life's losers. In scene after scene of "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing," this Chaplinesque fumbler and mumbler attracts humiliations and embarrassments like a supermagnet. In one sad moment, Polly, played with quirky sweetness by Shelia McCarthy, sits alone in her rickety little walk-up, eating peas one by one off a fork and staring off into the middle distance.

"Polly is everybody who's an underdog -- someone who never quite fits in," says her creator Patricia Rozema, who wrote, edited, directed and coproduced the low-budget Canadian film, opening Friday at the Key Theatre. "But she's someone that all of us know, because we've all been like that at some point." Rozema also insists, "Polly is never pathetic."

That much is true -- the unlikely heroine who learns to trust herself turns out to be triumphant. So, for that matter, has the fledgling director -- before this Rozema made only one short 16-mm drama. But "Mermaids" brought the premiere audience to its feet in Cannes, where it won the Prix de Jeunesse, an award given to "discovery" films of young artists. More importantly perhaps, it was bought briskly by distributors in Europe and the United States.

For the 29-year-old Rozema, it seems like a "stunning dream," similar to the Walter Mitty reveries Polly indulges in throughout "Mermaids." When the film switches to her black-and-white dreams, the hopelessly tongue-tied but dreamy Polly can fly, talk an intellectual blue streak and even have the golden-voiced mermaids sing to her. The film's title comes from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot. "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each;/ I do not think that they will sing to me."

The comparison to Polly, though, seems hard to make. With her quick smile and savvy clothes, Rozema exudes the natural confidence Polly lacks. She is every inch the film world's dream property these days: the smart independent moviemaker. Other small-scale properties, such as Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" and Robert Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle," have been surprising hits this year.

"It's almost like being low-budget and new is a promotional device," says Rozema with a trace of irony of her 18-month, $250,000 venture.

Rozema made the film to "create my own jollies, I guess." The art-world setting is perfect for the comical clash of cultures. Polly becomes a Girl Friday to an imperious gallery owner (Polly calls her the "Curator" with a godlike worship), and at first falls in love with the woman -- though for Polly it is only an unreciprocated crush of reverence, "not kissing and all that stuff." The art world is elegant and educated. Polly is not, and she blunders with humorous misery. These moments are gems, especially an exchange between two artistic blowhards about a painting. "No flabby euphemisms here -- there's blood," one pontificates. "The fork is irrelevant," the other observes confidently. Polly listens in awe.

"On its basic level, it's a funny entertainment, watching Polly find her way through this unlikely world I've stuck her in, and that's a typical plot I think most people have enjoyed," says Rozema.

But it's more than that. Polly's attempts to find her own artistic voice as an amateur photographer is slapped down by those whose judgment she reveres. From that moment of self-doubt, she must recover, break from authority and believe in her own visions. "I guess it's something we learn with a lot of anger -- that authority is flawed and people 'who know' aren't always right," Rozema says. "It's a hard thing to do and takes a lot of courage."

There's also an vague undercurrent of feminism. Since there are few women directors, Rozema expects that many will see the movie as a feminist piece, especially because the movie's principal figures are all strong women -- or become strong. "I'm not here to give propaganda -- I just assume feminist principles," she says. "Mostly I'm talking about strength in all of us."

Polly's kind of strength seems to have transported Rozema from her strict Calvinist upbringing and education in southwestern Ontario near Detroit to artistic life in Toronto now. "The religion is sooo austere," she says with a trace of a Canadian accent. "It made me learn to work hard, certainly." Her parents were "liberal-minded," she notes, giving her freedom to do what she wanted. Rozema took philosophy in a Calvinist college in Sarnia, and then went into journalism, working as associate producer for a Canadian Broadcasting Company public affairs program.

"I always wanted to make movies, but I thought I should have a marketable job," explains Rozema. It didn't take long for her to change her mind. "They thought I was a little wing-nutty," she tries to explain. "Organizationally impaired," as Polly is called,perhaps? "Yeah," she admits.

She got work as an assistant director on television shows and a few movies like David Cronenberg's sci-fi thriller, "The Fly." After a motion picture course in 1985, she made "Passion: A Letter in 16 mm." It won acclaim and a few awards, and with governmental grants and fund-raising she was able to make "Mermaids."

Rozema operated on a tight budget. Her crew members were mostly friends, many unfamiliar with moviemaking. "The gaffer was a poet, the wardrobe was done by an artists' collective. Everyone pitched in," she says.

She auditioned more than 200 actresses before finding McCarthy to play her lead. "I knew it was her by the way she carried off that subtle comic touch, the odd look, the detachment from the real world." She found actress Paule Baillargeon, who plays the curator, at a film festival. "She is a director too, but when I met her, I knew she was perfect with her savvy looks," says Rozema.

Rozema was surprised by the movie's apparent success. That success has made her well known in Canada and offers are coming in quickly. Her next work, she says, will be an offbeat story about "Zelda, the high priestess of the universe." Rozema plans to raise the money from sources outside Hollywood. "I want to be my own boss always."

But all this has brought the inevitable down side. "I couldn't ever make the same thing again, first because it would be like exploiting the cast and crew," she muses. "I'm also sure now that this has worked out that I'll have to get prepared for all the impossible expectations of my next work."

All the attention has also made her feel isolated. She felt guilty recently when she cut off a fan who called her late one night to talk about "Mermaids." "Before, I would have taken some time to get to know her, because it was so sweet," she says. "But I was so tired from all the work on this movie that I thought, 'This is all I need. Go away and let me relax.' "

The strain shows. At one point as she's cleverly recounting her practiced observations of "Mermaids," she stops cold. "I don't really know how to explain the movie, the movie explains itself," she says with the fatigue of someone who is asked the same question too many times. "The movie is my statement."

For much of "Mermaids," Rozema communicates her statements viscerally -- as with a glowing piece of art and seductive mermaid songs. "These things are beautiful and wonderful because the people who make them love them," says Rozema. In the movie, delight often crosses Polly's face as she shoots her loopy pictures. You can see it sometimes in Rozema's face, too: "I'd like movies I'm proud of for the rest of my life," she says.