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Toronto Film Festival

No Screen Gems, but Plenty of Talent

Underrated and unknown actors--including some first-timers--bring fresh energy at screenings.


TORONTO--The Toronto International Film Festival has been blissfully normal this year--aside from the heat and smog, which have been compared in the local papers to New York's, a city that's been on everybody's mind here. Before the festival started on Sept. 5 (it runs through Saturday ), there was talk that the first anniversary of 9/11 might disrupt or diminish the proceedings, but the events of last year have been more of a murmur, a background noise, in theaters and at parties.

In fact, there's no better example of business as usual here than a much-discussed flap over journalists--notably a Very Important Critic--being shut out of an overbooked press screening of Todd Haynes' romantic melodrama "Far From Heaven." So much for keeping the bigger perspective in mind.

This year's festival has not been a big one for undiscovered gems, but it has been unusually rich in performances by underrated actors and even ones who have never acted before.

Of the former, there's Campbell Scott's irresistible motor-mouth misogynist in Dylan Kidd's "Roger Dodger," Kyra Sedgwick's good-time gal in Rebecca Miller's "Personal Velocity," Motown session musicians the Funk Brothers in Paul Justman's documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," Alfred Molina's effortlessly egotistical Diego Rivera in Julie Taymor's "Frida" and Miranda Richardson's passive-aggressive work in David Cronenberg's "Spider."

Among the acting debuts, special mention has to be made of the lead in Curtis Hanson's "8 Mile," a work in progress that was shown only once, with scalped tickets reportedly going for as much as $185 (Canadian). The star, and the reason for all of the heat, was bad-boy rapper Eminem, who was playing a version of himself, a down-at-the-heels rapper who lives in a trailer with his boozy mother (Kim Basinger), works a dead-end job, hangs with losers, suffers stage fright and has anger-management issues. It may remind audiences of a movie they've seen before (Prince's "Purple Rain"), and Eminem's acting range may be limited, but who cares? When he starts rapping, it's all over--he's electrifying.

There's an extraordinary array of breakout performances by young, unknown actresses too. And the movies they are featured in don't traffic in the usual coming-of-age/sexual awakening cliches. Among them is director Niki Caro's New Zealand-set "Whale Rider," which sneaked up on audiences here as other, bigger films hogged the spotlight. At both public screenings it played to a standing ovation, prompting New Zealand actor Sam Neill, who was in the second audience, to give a speech of thanks to the filmmakers, which reduced Caro and much of the audience to tears. More tears flowed as the center of the film, 12-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, haltingly described what the experience meant to her. She gives what might be described as a quietly heroic performance as a Maori girl who assumes a mythic mantle of leadership over the objections of her traditionally minded grandfather.

Castle-Hughes, who had never acted before, was found by casting director Diana Rowan in an Auckland classroom. "I was being really naughty, passing notes and talking," she says, adding that Rowan took her aside when class was dismissed. "She asked me if I was Maori. Then she asked me if I could swim and open my eyes under water."

Another defiant girl is the subject of Philip Noyce's absorbing true-life drama, "Rabbit Proof Fence," which features the ferocious 11-year-old (now 13-year-old) novice Everlyn Sampi, along with two other girls, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan. They play "half-castes" (half-white, half-Aborigine) who escape a government institution and trek 1,500 miles home, evading the police and an aboriginal tracker. Sampi's character is tough, resourceful and stubborn--apparently not unlike Sampi herself. Noyce found her in a settlement called Djarindjin, in far northwestern Australia. Although she knew television, she'd never been in a movie theater and had no interest in becoming an actress. But Noyce turned a camera on her and discovered that she had "it," and induced her to join the picture. She ran away twice before the cameras rolled. "Everlyn Sampi has a healthy disrespect for authority," Noyce says ruefully.

Moving from the Outback to the bars, gambling dens and alleyways of southern France, there's Neil Jordan's wonderfully offhand "The Good Thief," a remake of the classic heist film "Bob le Flambeur" that features a flashy supporting performance by the improbably named Nutsa Kukhianidze.

Kukhianidze plays an Eastern European prostitute who is taken in by Bob (Nick Nolte) and his gang of thieves. Seventeen years old, from Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, Kukhianidze previously had starred in a Georgian film called "27 Missing Kisses," which played at Cannes. Jordan had seen the film and summoned her for an audition in London, where he discovered that she was living in Georgia--Atlanta, Ga.

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