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I'd like to draw your attention, for a moment, to a film called Waitress . Far from what's suggested by the banal title, this one's a perfect little movie - and "little" is not meant condescendingly. The plot can be summed up in a sentence: a waitress becomes pregnant by her abusive husband, starts to fall in love with her ob-gyn, and dreams of starting over.

As film critic Roger Ebert has pointed out, it's not what happens, it's how it happens. Waitress has a completely unique comic energy, quirky and feminine. The key is the tart performance by Keri Russel as Jenna. It's in the way she walks, in uniform, with her strong legs and her sensible shoes, half gliding, half stomping, unaware of her sexiness. It's in the light curl of her Southern accent that's always there, but doesn't have to announce itself. It's in her complicated smile, and the fierce light in her eyes. You become protective of this woman, so bright and full of promise; you don't want to see her spirit dimmed by life.

Kerri Russel, a former Mousketeer, has been catching eyes in films since the beginning: in a crappy movie-of-the-week called The Babysitter's Seduction , as an angst-ridden teenager in The Upside of Anger , in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role in Mission Impossible 3 . Here, for the first time, we see her as a full-grown woman; it's a star turn that will blindside you.

Waitress is bittersweet, as if the cynicism, but not the very real anxieties, has been scrubbed right out of it. The images, by cinematographer Matthew Irving, are sunny and clean, and he knows how to use a wide angle lens with care, to exaggerate without caricaturizing. The writer/director, Adrienne Shelly, making her third film, knows just how far she can stretch those delicate surfaces. Jenna's no-good husband, Earl, played by Jeremy Sisto, was the biggest risk. He's manipulative and controlling one moment, physically abusive the next, finally tearful, sullen, and infantile. Only late in the film do we learn how much Jenna fears him. Too many details about Earl would have spoiled the film's comic tone. We all know the bogeyman is real.

The only avenue of self expression open to Jenna is the invention of marvelous pies. At Old Joe's Pie Diner, she serves 27 varieties daily. These include I Hate My Husband pie, I Don't Want Earl's Baby pie, I'm Having an Affair and Earl's Going to Kill Me pie. All those who taste the pies know Jenna has passion and the potential for greatness. Hers is a talent born of intense regret borne stoically, of tears held back behind a determined smile. Like many artists, for Jenna, it's bake or go crazy.

A tragedy occurred just before the warm reception of Waitress at the Sundance film festival. Adrienne Shelly, forty years old, got into an argument with a construction worker, and he murdered her. It's probably unavoidable that sentiment has factored into the glowing critical consensus the film has received. There's nothing wrong with that; that's part of it. Life can be ugly. The movies don't always need to be.

Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.

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