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TORONTO (Reuters) - "Score: A Hockey Musical," the movie that opened the Toronto Film Festival on Thursday, is both a departure and a return to tradition for one of Canada's signature cultural events.
The festival, seen as a starting point in the race for the Oscars, raised the ire of the local arts community last year when it ditched its tradition of showcasing a Canadian film on opening night and chose British evolutionist drama "Creation."
This year the pendulum has swung back with the force of a hockey slapshot with a hokey musical about Canada's favorite sport -- think the musical TV show "Glee" on skates -- as the festival's gala opening show.
That more than adequately fulfills the made-in-Canada mandate. But the inclusion of "Score" has also sparked a debate over giving low-brow subject matter such plum placement.
"This is a movie that will divide opening night audiences, when dour 'important' Canadian movies are usually on display," wrote Jim Slotek of QMI Agency.
"The Oscar-bait fare that usually comes to Toronto is usually morbid, high-toned affairs with lots of grieving, angst and broken families," wrote Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today. "This one is just pure fun."
The audience, some wearing hockey jerseys, clearly enjoyed the campy film as they hooted and hollered through key scenes. The ovation carried on after Canadian singer Hawksley Workman took the stage after the credits with a live version of the closing musical number, flanked by a children's choir and a drum line.
Directed by Toronto-born filmmaker Michael McGowan, "Score" stars Olivia Newton-John, who recently guest-starred on "Glee" as herself, as a hockey mom to a player who becomes an overnight sensation. Walter Gretzky, father of hockey's Great One, Wayne Gretzky, and former hockey player Theo Fleury make cameos as themselves.
"It's a romp. I think it's a great way to start off a festival where you're going to get a lot of dark, depressing stuff," McGowan told Reuters in a recent interview.
McGowan previously screened two other critically acclaimed films at the Toronto festival: Saint Ralph (2004) and One Week (2008).
Before the screening began, he told the audience he couldn't believe where he was, having once been a volunteer at this very festival.
"I'm going to enjoy it because it might never happen again," he said.
Fun is a theme that festival organizers want to promote as they cut the ribbon on the festival's new permanent home in downtown Toronto this weekend. The complex houses five public cinemas, galleries, learning studios and several restaurants.
"We thought, 'This is a year for celebration,'" said Cameron Bailey, a co-director of the festival.
But there is a serious tone to the festival too, including David Schwimmer's "Trust," about a child's online predator. Betrayals, relationships and fidelity are topics for French film "Little White Lies" and the closing night gala "Last Night," starring Keira Knightley and Eva Mendes.
Stories based on true events get red carpet treatment with "Casino Jack," starring Kevin Spacey as former high-powered lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and "The Bang Bang Club," following four young photographers whose pictures capture the last bloody days of apartheid in South Africa.
The festival could grab an even bigger share of attention as a result of the financial crisis that has roiled the prestigious Venice Film Festival, which overlaps with Toronto.
With the entertainment industry still in cost-cutting mode, Toronto was seen as a cheaper option for studios keen on starting their awards season campaigns.
Strong buzz already surrounds Natalie Portman's portrayal of a ballerina in the psychological thriller "Black Swan," while Danny Boyle's "127 hours" is the director's highly anticipated follow-up to his 2008 hit "Slumdog Millionaire," which ran away with eight Oscars.
The festival ends on September 19 after screening 339 films from 59 countries.
Reporting by Ka Yan Ng; Editing by Eric Walsh