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Women Grab the Spotlight at Tribeca

Abbie Cornish, Michelle Williams, Elizabeth McGovern and a nine-year-old Mexican girl shine at the New York film festival

The second full day of screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival covered a typically wide gamut, from the launch of the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival with the basketball-themed documentary "Benji" to the debut of the no-doubt classy "Eddie – The Sleepwalking Cannibal" to an open-air "Tribeca Drive-In" screening of the '80s classic "The Goonies."

Buyers, meanwhile, talked appreciatively about a handful of films, including documentaries about Morton Downey Jr. and an aspiring Filipino rock star who became the new lead singer of Journey after posting a video on YouTube.

Michelle Williams and Seth RogenBut Friday at Tribeca was also a day for actresses to shine. A morning press-and-industry screening of "Take This Waltz," a drama from Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley that has been making the festival rounds since Toronto last September, supplied additional proof that Michelle Williams is an extraordinary actress, able to cut through even problematic material with startling depth and honesty.

Polley's film has plenty of light moments in its depiction of a married couple played by Williams and Seth Rogen, but it’s dour to a fault; just when you think it's heading for a gentle but satisfying conclusion, it takes a dark turn to hammer home the idea that everyone's life has holes in it, and nobody is ever really going to be happy.

Williams, though, creates a character that feels alive and rich and achingly, crushingly real. We hardly need to be reminded how good she is after back-to-back Oscar nominations for "Blue Valentine" and "My Week With Marilyn," but her raw and bold performance in "Take This Waltz" (which will almost certainly be rated NC-17 if Magnolia submits it to the MPAA) is a potent reminder nonetheless.

Elizabeth McGovern, meanwhile, stood in for the rest of the largely-female cast of the period film "Cheerful Weather for the Wedding," the kind of manor-set comedy-drama mixture that Tribeca Enterprises' chief creative officer Geoff Gilmore said "the British do better than anyone" when he introduced the film at its premiere. 

Donald Rice, the director of the film about wedding-day misadventures and buried secrets, introduced McGovern and said she'd had an eventful trip from her home in England: "She lost her luggage, which was mistaken for Dame Judi Dench's luggage."

Abbie Cornish at Tribeca(If that's true, one imagines that the short black dress and red heels that McGovern was sporting did not  come from Dame Judi's suitcase.) 

But the actress whose star shone brightest on Friday at Tribeca was clearly Abbie Cornish (right), whose startling performance in David Riker's drama "The Girl" drew raves even from those who felt the film itself pulled too many punches in its tale of a poor Texas mother drawn into smuggling a carload of Mexicans across the border into Texas.

Cornish is understated but wrenching in her portrayal of a woman who sees no way out of debilitating poverty, and no way to regain custody of her young son. She says half of her lines in a Southern drawl and the other half in Spanish, a language she didn't speak before landing the movie – and when the Australian-born actress got up onstage at the end of the film to answer questions, her natural Aussie accent just emphasized how out of her element Cornish must have been.

"This was the most intense, beautiful and collaborative filmmaking experience I've ever had," said Cornish after the screening. " … [The film] has a heartbeat, it has a soul."

The GirlAs impressive as Cornish is in "The Girl," though, most of the talk at the post-screening Q&A turned to a much younger actress: nine-year-old Maritza Santiago Hernandez, who the filmmakers found in a small village in the state of Oaxaca, in southwestern Mexico.

"There's no film industry to bring the girls to you – you have to go find them," said producer Paul Mezey of the casting search, which he said included looking at 3,000 girls in 60 villages.

"She knew every single word in the entire script," said Cornish of her young co-star, who had never acted before and has no ambitions to continue. "It was intimidating."

Hernandez did not make the trip to New York for the movie's premiere, but she still dominated the conversation – meaning that on a day when the women of Tribeca took center stage, a little girl stole the show.