NEW YORK — If there's a keynote performance at the 11th annual Tribeca Film Festival, it may well be Abbie Cornish's riveting portrayal of a Texas single mother who, desperate for money to regain custody of her son, haphazardly smuggles Mexican immigrants across the border.
Such leading roles don't frequently come around for women, but this year's Tribeca boasts a boatload of them. In David Riker's "The Girl," which will make its world premiere in competition at the festival, Cornish's fraught, sweaty performance of a mother on the brink bears two more pervasive themes at the 2012 Tribeca: financial straits and overlapping worlds.
"It totally rebirthed me as an actor," says Cornish, the Aussie actress of "Bright Star" and "Limitless." ''It felt like it was the first time again. In making the film, I felt like it was the best I had ever been as an actor in all regards — as an actor, as a collaborator, as a human being."
The New York festival, founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff, opens Wednesday with the flashy premiere of the comedy "The Five-Year Engagement," starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt. Tribeca is punctuated by such popcorn-friendly tent-pole events, including the closing night superhero bonanza, "The Avengers," and numerous outdoor screenings.
The slate, numbering 90 movies this year, is typically among the most varied (and hardest to define) of the large international festivals. This year's selections were programmed by a somewhat new team that includes veterans of Sundance and Cannes.
"These are stories that start off on familiar turf — on territory and genres that I feel like I know where this is going — and take turns and go in directions that I totally didn't anticipate," says Geoff Gilmore, the chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises, who programmed the Sundance Film Festival for years. "And they end up feeling fresh."
And they are stories littered with memorable female protagonists.
"Lola Versus," a New York comedy from the filmmaking couple Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein to be released this June, is one of the best showcases yet for Greta Gerwig, the naturalistic actress of "Greenberg" and the recently released "Damsels in Distress." Lister-Jones and Wein drew from their own experiences (particularly Lister-Jones) to make a film, she says, about "what it's really like to be a single woman in New York, approaching 30."
"More than anything, I think we really felt there needed to be a movie with a female in the leading role because there's so few of them out there that feel authentic and real," says Wein. "You rarely get to see women being unapologetic."
"It's a moment happening now for women in film and we're happy to be a part of it," he adds, noting last year's "Bridesmaids" and Lena Dunham's recently debuted HBO series "Girls." ''They're obviously our brethren" — to which Lister-Jones corrected: "Sistren."
Michael Winterbottom's "Trishna," is an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," relocated to contemporary Rajasthan, India. Freida Pinto ("Slumdog Millionaire") stars as the title character, a peasant who falls in love with a British businessman (Riz Ahmed).
In wintery noir "Deadfall," the fallout of a brother-sister pair on the run (Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde) turns on a trio of women: Kate Mara, as a police officer and daughter to the police chief; Sissy Spacek as the mother of an ex-con boxer; and Wilde, as a perhaps overly dependent sister. (Another, more low-budget film set in cold environs is the interesting "First Winter," about a group of Brooklyn hipsters whose yoga classes and commune-like rural retreat come undone by an apocalyptic blackout.)
Nancy Schaefer, executive director of the festival, sees recession-era films that "maximize creativity": "There's a lot going on in these films that speaks to people having to be resourceful."
In telling a history of the vibrator, "Hysteria" has quite another perspective on resourcefulness. Directed by Tanya Wexler, the film, depicts the invention by a 19th century British doctor (Hugh Dancy) in tandem with the rebellions of an early feminist (Maggie Gyllenhaal, in a part perfectly suited to her) in Victorian London.
There are numerous other films, too, that feature not only a leading lady, but a female director. Kat Coiro's "While We Were Here," is a black-and-white drama about a wife (Kate Bosworth) and husband (Iddo Goldberg) traveling in Naples, where Bosworth's character is lured by a young American abroad (Jamie Blackley). Julie Delpy's "2 Days in New York," her follow up to "2 Days in Paris," more comically places a relationship (Chris Rock plays Delpy's husband) in the context of a particular place.
In "Take This Waltz," actress Sarah Polley takes her second stab at directing after the well-received "Away From Her." While "Away From Her" was adapted from an Alice Munro story, Polley wrote the script for "Take This Waltz" herself — though it still bears a Munro-like interest in the passage of time. Michelle Williams stars as a tempted young wife to Seth Rogen.
"Your Sister's Sister" is another kind of follow-up for director Lynn Shelton, whose 2009 "Humpday" was a notable entry in the unadorned filmmaking style typically called "mumblecore." ''Your Sister's Sister" similarly uses awkward intimacy to tease out a deeper story between two sisters (Emily Blunt and Rosemarie Dewitt, both in fine, improvising form) and a possibly shared interest (Mark Duplass).
But perhaps the most unusual female protagonist at Tribeca is the young Rachel Mwanza, who plays a 13-year-old child soldier caught up in an unspecified African revolution in Montreal filmmaker Kim Nguyen's "War Witch."
"When we found her, she was living partly at her grandmother's place and partly on the streets," says Nguyen, who shot the film in the Congo. "The movie gave her a small chance of getting out of the streets."
Nguyen wanted a subjective film from the perspective a child soldier, often adapting the story after speaking with locals, like a sergeant that ended up in the film. Actors were never given a script, lending "War Witch" an uncommon realism.
"I realized quickly that she has an immense talent," says Nguyen. "When I asked her how she does it — how she bursts out in laughter, how she starts crying so normally — she just told me that she thinks of her past."