Characters in a Whit Stillman film are usually adept at the art of graceful condescension – I’m thinking of Kate Beckinsale’s club queen in The Last Days of Disco or Chris Eigeman’s ugly American in Barcelona. Maybe they know they are mean, but they don’t intend any serious harm. Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s first new film in 14 years, is a snapshot of those characters in a more innocent time, when they are mere beginners at the burn game. It’s unusual for a Stillman character to extol the virtues of “clichés and hackneyed wisdom,” as earnest overachiever Violet (Greta Gerwig) does. But she’s got a point, and not just about the kernels of truth in otherwise empty platitudes – now’s the time to get the fundamentals down, while everyone is still giving each other plenty of leeway.
Nobody needs it more than Violet, who commands a clique of prim do-gooders who consider themselves the social betters of both the cynical intellectuals and the unwashed fratboys at their faux-Ivy League institution. But in their brand of social Darwinism, contempt goes hand in hand with concern. Violet runs the campus Suicide Prevention Center along with her lieutenants Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), seeking to combat clinical depression and poor hygiene with tap dance routines; she also practices her brand of “social work” by dating dimwitted fixer-uppers from Roman letter houses (the film’s satirical spin on the Greek system) like Frank (Ryan Metcalf). When clear-eyed transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) appears at orientation, Violet spies another reclamation project and pounces. But the group’s quest to subsume Lily’s identity backfires, as the world’s constant challenges to Violet’s inexorably cheerful dogma eventually send her into a depression of her own. (Though she’d prefer you call it a “tailspin.”)
Like any good farce, Damsels in Distress takes place in a strangely mannered world. Students are rarely seen in class, and the campus seems to exist solely for the purpose of ambulatory conversation. Stillman sure can turn a phrase, but he’s never been one for giving his actors a lot of business: spicing up a scene usually means sending the characters on a stroll or out to supper. The film’s hyper-verbal style walks a fine line between sublime and spoofy, and while this can be off-putting at first, it eventually becomes difficult to resist its genial charms. Much of the movie’s conviviality is owed to Stillman’s dialogue, which is complex but not aloof. Though humorously precise, it sounds like the kind of stuff that young people too convinced of their own cleverness might say, like repeatedly deeming a simple courtship ritual a “player or operator move.”
While it presents an impressively up-to-date cross-section of the urban bourgeoisie, Damsels doesn’t seem to be saying anything that Stillman hasn’t said before. It’s another exchange of high and low culture where no person is all good or all bad, and everyone is ultimately well-meaning, despite their tendency to hurt each others’ feelings. But this idea has a certain primacy at college – a place where many people will learn, perhaps for the first time, that the world has its own agenda and is largely unconcerned with their own. In the end, Damsels in Distress is a familiar but very welcome yarn from a magnanimous raconteur who hasn’t lost his knack for capturing the stumbling search for self.
“Damsels in Distress” is out now in limited release.