With Damsels In Distress, Whit Stillman returns to directing after 13 years by taking the sympathetic comedy of manners he’s known for and placing it in the social milieu of a college campus. The results are, if not the long-gestated masterpiece one might expect after such a long hiatus, certainly a welcome reintroduction to Stillman’s distinct breed of smart and talky comic dramas.
Like his previous films, this is a rumination on the intensity of modern youth; how the educated young are, in a sense, rendered insane by the wealth of privilege and experience offered up to them by life, by the growing weight of passing history on their shoulders. As in Metropolitan (1989), this insanity is observed by an outsider. In this case, it’s Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student who ends up rooming with a trio of well-meaning (and groomed) and obliviously snobbish girls led by Violet (Greta Gerwig). Lily becomes our proxy in the absurdist diorama of college life that the film’s Seven Oaks College provides, with its over-the-top castes of “Romans” (instead of Greeks), pungent dorm-dwellers and suicidal education students.
Lily often comments how everyone surrounding her is “crazy” or “insane,” and Violet readily admits that she is. Gerwig plays Violet as a sweet, earnest foil for pessimism; turning her “craziness” and sadness, released into a “tailspin” (she prefers not to use the word “depression”) by problems with her jock boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf), into an opportunity for growth and self-awareness. Despite its preoccupation with depression (the girls run a Suicide Prevention Centre, and Seven Oaks itself is rife with comically failed suicide attempts), there’s little room for cynicism in this film. While Stillman exposes the hypocrisy and self-absorption of privileged young adults at every turn, and shows their ability to hurt each other with ease, he also examines their capacity for warmth and sincerity. His characters are all essentially flawed but good people, hapless guardians of the hope that surrounds the notion of higher education. As Thor (Billy Magnusson), a frat-boy who can’t recognize colours, exclaims on successfully labelling the shades of a rainbow for the first time: “We can learn!”
Violet’s endless faith in people is, in this world at least, justified. In this, the film’s day-glo, tap-dancing leanings towards classic musicals make perfect sense. It brightly resurrects the genre’s utopian optimism without its bloated excess in a way that reminds of this year’s The Muppets. As in Stillman’s previous film The Last Days of Disco (1998), music and dance represent a celebration of what is inherently good in humanity, which is why Violet wants to start a new worldwide dance sensation. Damsels lacks the understated sense of place and strong sense of historical context that Stillman’s other films have, being set in an iridescent fantasy bubble. But there’s an inherent nostalgia in the evocation of this familiar generational fear of not living up to a past constantly in the process of being romanticized. Hence the ‘craziness’ of the young—a desperation which can manifest itself in harmful and joyful ways. The film invites us to celebrate that without cruelty or judgement, as Lily strives to without sacrificing her professed need to be “normal.”
The broad comedy that Stillman mixes in with his mannered dialogue to portray his child-like frat-boys is odd, and not quite successful. But it’s more than made up for by the four women driving the movie (Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore play Rose and Heather). All of them (Gerwig especially) bolster Stillman’s ability to create distinct and unusual characters with economy, so that every member of his varied ensembles stands out. Rose and Heather are shallower in this regard than Violet and Lily, but Echikunwoke and MacLemore keep them delightfully alive. Fred and Xavier, the non-frat boys who challenge the bonds of the titular damsels, are also well played by Adam Brody and Hugo Becker. Like the leading ladies, they bring to their characters a quirkiness that transcends the predictability of quirk.
Damsels In Distress will be hard to swallow for many, with its zany characters, self-consciously elevated (some might say stilted) dialogue, and incongruous mix of cartoonish campus movie and sharply witty character-driven indie. But it’s worth hanging around till the end to let its oddness grow on you, if only to see how a film so souffle-sweet and light can also feel so layered and singular. I for one am glad to welcome Stillman into twenty-first century cinema.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
USA 2011. Director: Whit Stillman
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Analeigh Tipton