There are few things less enthralling than the prospect of a Park Avenue after party in the company of New York debutantes and their escorts. Cartoonist agent and freelance magazine writer Whit Stillman's first film is about exactly that and, despite expectation, it's worth dusting off the dinner jacket to accept an invitation.

His screenplay is a lesson in tact, wit and modesty. There is nothing simpler than mocking the remnants of a once-powerful establishment, satirising the folly of tradition or exaggerating the weakness of upper-class sensibility. Stillman refuses to taunt. His charmers, spongers, gossips and wallflowers are never less than entertaining and always stimulating conversationalists.

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Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) went to the right school, but started his rebellion early. He's living with his mother at the wrong end of town and money is tight. The whole deb thing is anathema and yet he allows himself to be sucked into a group of regulars, who meet every night before and after the dances at Sally's parents' apartment to drink, talk, dissect other people's defects and revel in their own hypocrisy.

Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman) delights in the cut of crusted bitchery. His cynicism sparkles like a Tiffany tiepin and there's nothing he enjoys more than insulting sensitivity for its naive ambition. His particular hatred is for Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), a tall, rich baron, not of their clique, who epitomises everything that's unfair about the class system. Von Sloneker doesn't even try and he gets the girls. Nick shrugs and tells Tom: "Unlike you, I always assumed I would be a failure anyway."

Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) wears academic spectacles and plays the role of devil's advocate, constantly announcing the demise of preppy values. Like Nick, he nurtures the rumour that inherited wealth, with all its associated privilege, is doomed. The girls are less conscious of inevitable disillusionment. When Charlie decides to call themselves the UHB (Urban Haute Bourgeois), they laugh. "The fact that it sounds ridiculous would add to its appeal," he suggests.

Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) is one of those girls who shouldn't be allowed out alone - her shyness constitutes a health hazard. Her friends are more capable of rebutting repartee and recognising treacherous character traits ("When you're an egotist, none of the harm you do is intentional.")

Charlie aches for Audrey, who yearns for Tom, who loves Serena, who worships herself. Nick sleeps with Cynthia, who lusts after Rick, who plays the field. Fred drinks, Jane complains, Sally has a date ("What's that? It sounds like something from the 1950s"). The outside world baffles them. Without talk and each other, they are adrift.

His cast of unknowns beautifully expresses Stillman's vision of a tribal time warp. First impressions change and the glittering sophistication, displayed with such mock arrogance at the introduction, dissolves.

"That's how failure starts," Charlie tells Tom, as they attempt unsuccessfully to hire a car to drive out to Rick's summer place and do something destructive. "Incompetence in mastering the tests of ordinary life."

Tom begins as a bolshy introvert and ends addicted to the UHB. Charlie says to Nick, discussing Tom, "When he's not being phoney, he's a bastard." It's ironic that they're together at the end, clinging to the wreckage, offering a limp hand to Audrey, the last of the dozy dreamers.

Reviewed on: 31 Jul 2006
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The self-contained cynicism and bitchy banter of New York’s young contenders at the debutantes’ after parties.
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Director: Whit Stillman

Writer: Whit Stillman

Starring: Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, Christopher Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, Allison Rutledge-Parisi, Dylan Hundley, Isabel Gillies, Will Kempe, Elisabeth Thompson

Year: 1990

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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Sundance 2010

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