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Smilin' through with Mike Leigh

TORONTO -- Mike Leigh is 65 years old and universally acclaimed as one of the leading British directors, although "Happy-Go-Lucky" is only his tenth theatrical feature sine 1971. There's a reason for that. He went another 17 years before making "High Hopes" in 1998, although he kept busy with BBC films and stage work. His problem was, he couldn't get financing to make a film without a screenplay, and he famously has two conditions to make a film: (1) No outside interference, and (2) the screenplay is devised in collaboration with the actors, after the project has started.

"Happy-Go-Lucky" centers on an astonishing performance by Sally Hawkins, as a very cheerful young woman. By that I mean she is upbeat and happy in the face of legitimate provocation to feel otherwise. Such a performance could derail. Hawkins is convincing. All doesn't always go well with her; she decides to take driving instructions, and encounters a teacher played by Eddie Marsan who should have his license suspended until he gets help, a lot of help.

I suppose this sounds like a possible episode for "I Love Lucy," but never with Leigh in charge. There is a special naturalism to his work that deepens and enriches it, as he conceals the depths and potentials of his characters. Although he has had considerable box office success ("Secrets and Lies," "Topsy-Turvy," "Vera Drake") he told me he still has trouble getting money to work above a certain budget level. Film finance people are suspicious of artists who trust to inspiration instead of a numbskull "high concept" (my words, not his). When you find a director like him who refuses to insult our intelligence and better nature, you cling to him.

Not to despair. Publicist Laura Silverman tells me 23 films showing at Toronto will also screen in the Chicago International Film Festival, Oct. 16-29, including "Happy-Go-Lucky."

Some movies tell stories about life as it is. Others tell stories about life as it should be. "The Secret Life of Bees" does a little of both. The widely-awaited screen adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's best-seller, premiering here at the Toronto Film Festival, portrays a family that provides a safe harbor in the midst of Deep South racism in 1964.

The matriarch of this family is played by Queen Latifah, as a wise bee-keeper. Her sisters are played by Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo. Coming to them in search of refuge are a runaway girl (Dakota Fanning) and her violent dad's housekeeper (Jennifer Hudson). The film balances between the goodness and harmony of the bee-keeper's farm, and the hostility (and some kindness) in the nearby town.

There are good things to be said about this film, which can wait for my review. I'd rather focus today on the coming-of-age of Dakota Fanning. She is 14 now, no longer a child actress, but an actress forging her way into more grown-up roles. She was so good before, but I have confidence we ain't seen nothing yet. Here she's taller, beginning to mature, and the most gratifying surprise is her full and musical voice. She still has that ear-splitting screech when she needs it, but she will have an adult voice we will feel good listening to, like Meryl Streep's.

She's here at Toronto with her mom; they seem good friends, and I hope they escape the dreaded complications of the teenage years. She's started out on the right foot, making a public pledge to a reporter here that she will figure in no scandals until she is 18. No drinking no drugs, no pregnancies. Of course I don't imagine she'll go wild after 18. It's such a waste of time. I hope she has a long chat with Lindsay Lohan about what can go wrong. I sense that Dakota (excuse me, Ms. Fanning) is following in the footsteps of Jodie Foster, the poster girl for the transition from great child actress to great adult actress, director and producer.

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