It’s a shock to find a summer movie in which no weapons are fired. But writer-director Whit Stillman’s marvelously literate, comic and romantic debut film — produced for under $1 million with an extraordinary cast of unknowns — suffers no loss in impact. Admittedly, the subject sounds twitty: New York society debs and the rich college preppies who escort them to balls and then to late “after parties.” But Stillman examines the “UHB” (urban haute bourgeoisie) like an anthropologist who has uncovered the remnants of a tribe last chronicled by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Stillman, now thirty-eight, knows the territory. Like the character of Tom, played by Edward Clements, Stillman grew up near these privileged Manhattanites he once claimed to disdain. Tom, a financially strapped Princeton man, is pressed into service as an escort by Sally Fowler (played by socialite Dylan Hundley) and her Rat Pack. Tom is bemused by the men of the group: the cynical Nick (Christopher Eigeman), who complains of his stepmother’s “untrammeled malevolence”; the pensive Charlie (Taylor Nichols), who frets that his class is “doomed to failure”; and the sleepy Fred (Bryan Leder), who uses alcohol as an aid to forget everything.
For Tom, recently jilted by the gorgeous Serena (Elizabeth Thompson), the more outgoing women of the group — Sally, Jane (Allison Rutledge-Parisi) and Cynthia (Isabel Gillies) — are of less interest than the quiet, delicate Audrey (the luminous Carolyn Farina). Their relationship becomes the core of the film. Audrey admires Jane Austen; Tom prefers literary criticism to actual books and offers a negative broadside on Austen from Lionel Trilling. It is a tribute to the actors and to Stillman that the scene in which Tom tells Audrey he finally read Austen’s Persuasion and liked it carries such emotional weight.
Though Stillman wittily nails the hypocrisy of a social set too scared or lazy to put its intelligence to work, he is moved by its struggle to maintain a code of honor in a world with little use for such anachronisms. This just about perfect little picture — adroitly served by Mark Suozzo’s score and John Thomas’s cinematography — is a triumphant anomaly: a rude comedy of manners.