Dir: Amos Kollek. US. 2000. 98 mins

Prod Co: Lumen Films. Int'l Sales: Celluloid Dreams. Prod: Hengameh Panahi. Co-prod: Avram Ludwig. Scr: Amos Kollek. DoP: Jean-Marc Fabre. Prod des: Stacey Tanner. Ed: Sheri Bylander. Mus: David Carbonara. Main cast: Anna Thomson, Jamie Harris, Louise Lasser, Robert Modica, Lonette McKee.

As welcome as a cool breeze on an humid day, Fast Food, Fast Women is the kind of film that sends you into the world with a spring in your step and a broad smile on your face. A completely unexpected charmer that was warmly received at its initial press screening, it is one of the most accessible and engaging titles in the Official Competition selection. Manna from heaven in a Festival heavy with epic dramas and emotional angst, its sharp writing, New York locations and expert performances reveal pleasing affinities with the wit and world of a classic Woody Allen or Neil Simon comedy. Word of mouth is sure to be positive on a small film ripe with sleeper potential.

A captivating performance from Anna Thomson is at the centre of a droll, deftly balanced ensemble salute to the eternal optimism of the human heart. A wry, vulnerable and resilient thirtysomething, her gawky presence and dry timing are a joy to behold. Although she faces tough competition from Faithless star Lena Endre she must still be considered a contender for the Festival's Best Actress accolade.

A waif-like New York waitress, her lovelorn Bella is anxiously approaching the trauma of her impending 35th birthday. Coasting along in a deeply unsatisfying tryst with married theatre director George (Austin Pendleton), she agrees to a blind date with taxi driver Bruno (Harris). Advised to deny her desire for children and overcome her resistance to sex on the first date, she warily clatters towards the liaison in ill-fitting high heels.

Bruno coincidentally has just been lumbered with the custody of his five year-old daughter and his former wife's newest baby which leaves him and Bella both concealing important elements of their lives. As the potential relationship between them ebbs and flows, the script widens to encompass the loves and loneliness of other characters in her neighbourhood and the old-fashioned diner where she works. Gentlemanly senior citizen Paul (Modica), for instance, has finally plucked up the nerve to answer a lonely hearts ad placed by sixty year-old widow (Lasser). Fellow veteran Seymour (Victor Argo) has taken a shine to a dancer at a local peep show. Every-one, young or old, is looking for a sweet taste of romance.

Fast Food, Fast Women may cover familiar territory but it has a wit and a distinctive flavour of its own. Filled with compassionate one-liners and clever ideas, it trades in humour that arises from believable situations and broadens our understanding of the characters' inner emotional lives. The film builds such goodwill that even the fanciful plot twists required to further a happy ending are accepted with ready indulgence. The film also endears itself by acknowledging that love springs eternal and that age never withers hope or silences desire. Audiences across the board should find that message hard to resist.