Peter Hedges' emotional on-stage interview after the Oct 4 screening of his dysfunctional family drama Pieces Of April provided one of the early highlights of the 26th Mill Valley Film Festival, which in its first weekend offered a heady mix of passion and personality that confirmed its status as a spirited forum for film-makers.

Writer-director Hedges, whose screenplay credits include What's Eating Gilbert Grape and About A Boy, said the sell-out film was a tribute to his late mother, whose death from cancer is echoed in Patricia Clarkson's stirring performance.

"I don't think you've seen Patricia better than this," Hedges said of his directorial debut. He said he was encouraged by his mother to return to rough story notes he had written years earlier and wrote most of the screenplay after she died.

The $300,000 InDigEnt film, which opens through MGM/UA on Oct 17, drew a standing ovation from the crowd and stars Katie Holmes as an estranged daughter who invites her family for Thanksgiving dinner.

Derek Luke's performance as Holmes' partner earned special praise from Hedges, who recalled that the young actor's audition was as thrilling as DiCaprio's had been for Gilbert Grape years before.

Earlier in the day Lili Taylor, one of the doyennes of the independent circuit whose credits include Mystic Pizza, Things I Never Told You and John Sayles' new ensemble drama Casa De Los Babys, swore allegiance to the movement but added that she was considering a new sideline.

"I am going to try to go down the voice-over route," she said during a Tribute To Film-makers interview in her honour.

Such momentum seems typical of the actor, who said she liked to perform in at least one play a year to stay fresh and preferred not to watch her back catalogue.

"I don't usually watch my films more than once or twice and there isn't really one that stands out. I like to move on and don't pay too much attention to myself."

Prior to the interview festival organisers screened A Slipping-Down Life, Toni Kalem's quirky and poignant adaptation of Anne Tyler's novel about a quiet girl who performs a desperate act to attract the attention of a beguiling musician. Guy Pearce also stars.

The film became mired in post-production problems following its premiere at Sundance in 1999 and will now be released in March 2004 through Lions Gate.

The festival opened on Oct 2 with a trio of films: Carl Franklin's Bayou-set thriller Out Of Time, which opened number two at the box office at the weekend; Tom McCarthy's comedy-drama The Station Agent; and Sayles' Casa De Los Babys.

It closes on Oct 12 with Denys Arcand's drama The Barbarian Invasions.