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Could be a `Contender'

TORONTO -- Notes after emerging from early screenings at the Toronto Film Festival:

Rod Lurie's "The Contender," which premiered here over the weekend, is the most boldly partisan big-star film in decades. Starring Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman in the story of congressional hearings marred by sexual scandal, it's upfront and even defiant with its liberal, pro-Democratic Party politics.

Allen stars as a senator who is nominated for vice president after the incumbent dies in office. Oldman is the hostile Republican head of the House Judiciary Committee, who gets evidence that seems to prove the senator participated in a drunken gang-bang in college. Bridges is the president who must decide whether to withdraw the nomination, and Christian Slater is the Democratic congressman who might trade his vote for power. In the wings is a Democratic governor (William Petersen) who desperately wants to be vice president.

The plot depends on the Allen character's flat refusal to confirm, deny or even discuss her sex life, which she considers her own business. "Is the plot a veiled reference to Monicagate?" I asked Bridges. "Veiled?" he said. "I don't think it's so veiled."

Lurie, a former film critic for Los Angeles magazine, is the son of political cartoonist Ronan Lurie, grew up in a political household and told me he has always wondered why movies don't take sides more often. His film is not a fictional version of President Clinton's troubles, he said, but an ideological protest against the invasion of privacy. The tactics of Kenneth Starr seem to hover behind the movie's plot to discredit the nominee, and Oldman's character is a sanctimonious infighter who relishes power and hates the president. "When I wrote that character I had Arlen Specter and Henry Hyde in mind," Lurie said.

The film was produced independently because "studios were shy about a movie this upfront about politics," and wanted to replace Allen, the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member who won an Oscar nomination as Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's "Nixon." "But I wrote the movie for her," he said. "I think she's the best actress in the world, and the only actress for this role."

After the film was completed, it so impressed Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks that it became that studio's first pick-up of an outside production.

Allen is being talked about as a sure thing for another Oscar nomination. There's a scene in the film where she tells Congress what she believes in. "In the editing room, I was sitting with Steven Spielberg, and he suggested we have a little music swell up under her speech," Lurie said. "I said the music would indicate we supported what she was saying. Steven said, `What's wrong with that? We do.' " The music is in.

TEARS AND SMILES: Every festival has a small, heartfelt film that slips in without big publicity and starts stealing hearts. I've seen two so far at Toronto this year.

"The Truth About Tully" ("Tully"), directed by first-timer Hilary Birmingham, is set on a hard-pressed Nebraska farm, where two grown sons help their widowed father work the land. While financial troubles and old secrets bedevil their dad (Bob Burrus), Tully Sr. (Anson Mount) dates a local stripper (Catherine Kellner) so jealous, she shoots up the hood of his aging Cadillac. Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald) makes friends with Ella, a freckle-faced neighbor (Julianne Nicholson) who wants to be a vet. She also wants to be Tully Jr.'s wife, but only if he grows up.

That outline makes the story seem like a simple slice of life, but there are depths and shadows in the film, and a powerful performance by Burrus, as a father still in love with the wife who betrayed him. What is interesting is the way Ella's healthy, centered personality sort of eats away at the family's angst and gloom. The movie seems to have an unusual emotional impact on audiences; there were tears and brave smiles after it was over.

TRUE TO LIFE: "George Washington" is the other early discovery at this year's festival. Written and directed by David Gordon Green, a Texas filmmaker who has previously worked only on shorts and documentaries, it's the story of poor teenagers, mostly black, some white, living in an industrial area so blasted and forlorn, it looks like a landscape of purgatory.

We meet Buddy, a 13-year-old, his heart broken because Nasia, the film's 12-year-old narrator, has stopped being his girlfriend. She wants "someone more mature," and chooses George, who is no catch: He's a little retarded, and wears a football helmet because of a soft skull.

The film has an uncanny ease in its sometimes improvised scenes. Characters seem relaxed after long knowledge of one another, and events are not driven by the plot but take place with the haphazard suddenness of life. The prevailing mood is one of sadness, isolation, bafflement, but there are flashes of humor based on how very peculiar and contrary we humans can be.

Watching the film, I saw it as a tightwire act, and wondered how Green could spin such an involving story out of such apparently slight and offhand materials. In its mastery of style, the film plays notes it seems to be inventing.

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