Okay, maybe I'm being a little harsh about the diminished role of women in the studio films at this year's Toronto Film Festival. True, there aren't any Hollywood films by female directors this year. The Kathryn Bigelow effect apparently hasn't kicked in yet. And women in significant roles are pretty rare, too. What about "Moneyball?" Robin Wright plays a bitchy ex-wife. "The Ides of March?" Rachel Evan Wood plays a self-described "slutty" intern and Marisa Tomei plays a journalist who admits that she'd resort to sexual favors to get a scoop. "Killer Elite?" "Machinegun Preacher?" Need I say more?
But then there's "The Descendants," directed by Alexander Payne, whose previous films include "About Schmidt" and "Sideways" and who is one of the best American filmmakers working today. An acutely observed, moving and funny family melodrama, it achieves the rare feat of balancing grief and comedy, and tragedy and absurdity, without being mawkish and dumb. And it pulls off the even rarer feat of depicting a teenaged girl with credibility and insight. Played in a terrific breakout performance by Shailene Woodley, Alexandra is the elder daughter of Matt King (George Clooney), the scion of an old wealthy, landowning Hawaiian family who has come on tough times when his free-spirited wife has a boating accident and ends up in a coma. Distraught, unable to handle his younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller, also a standout), Matt brings Alexandra back from her boarding school, where she's rehabbing from drug and behavioral problems, to help out. Alexandra's not too keen on cooperating and discloses some information about his wife that doesn't help Matt out at all.
But then something unusual happens. Alexandra rises to the occasion, bonding with her father in a quixotic, even perverse quest and growing in maturity and strength until you'd have to say that she's the real protagonist in this movie, and, George Clooney notwithstanding, Shailene Woodley is the film's star.
Not according to her, though. When I interviewed her on Friday, the 19-year-old actress, best known for her role playing another troubled girl in the TV show "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," Woodley seemed earnest and effusive, speaking about Clooney and Payne with the same worshipful adulation with which Wim Wenders discussed Pina Bausch.
"Together they are two of the most humble and brilliant men I've ever met," she said. "George Clooney isn't just a superstar. He's a superhuman. And Alexander brings me to tears because I have so much gratitude and love for who he is as a person and the art that he makes and the joy he brings to the world. He takes something and shows the realistic, truthful side of it and the reason his films are so oddly funny, so hysterically funny, is because life is funny. We take ourselves so seriously and really we're just pieces of this giant puzzle. He sees this and puts it in his films."
And all this said about someone who made her do four takes crying underwater in a filthy, chlorinated swimming pool.
Woodley might well have been talking about the director Whit Stillman in her description of Payne. Like Payne, Stillman also is "oddly funny" and his films like "Metropolitan" (1990) and "Barcelona" (1994) "show the realistic, truthful side" of things, though maybe in a more skewed, highly literate, "Stillmanesque" way. But Stillman has not had much luck with studios and less success than Payne in getting his films made. "Damsels in Distress," his film in the festival, is his first since "The Last Days of Disco" (1998), and it might be the one that finally puts him over the top. It's his most accessible, and not in any pejorative sense, a feel-good, laugh-a-minute confection that combines "Heathers" (there is, in fact, a character named Heather) and "Clueless" with a sizeable helping of "Animal House" and a dash of the 1937 Fred Astaire musical "A Damsel in Distress" alluded to in the title. It is also, in a tartly tongue in cheek, Whit Stillman way, an incisive, quasi-feminist analysis of male-female relations.
At the formerly all-male Seven Oaks University, Violet (Greta Gerwig, rebounding nicely from "Arthur") and her followers Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) crusade to purge the school of the male "barbarism," not to mention the acrid body odor, that still prevails years of going co-ed. They enlist into their floral arrangement new arrival Lily (Analeigh Tipton) and to this sometimes skeptical initiate, they explain their program of dating dumb men, inventing a new dance craze, and curing depression through tap-dancing as a way to change the world. It sounds kind of like a gross-out free John Waters filtered through Woody Allen, but Gerwig's mastery of her hilariously prolix dialogue complements Stillman's sure touch. His irony does not falter until the concluding, surprisingly exhilarating song and dance production of the Gershwin number "Things Are Looking Up," and by the end of the film, they really seem like they just might be.