The college girls in Whit Stillman’s witty frolic Damsels in Distress, his first film since 1998, seem at the outset to be as horrible as the infamous Heathers trio. They’re pretentious, condescending and travel in a well-dressed pack, albeit one with fashion sense inspired by Nancy Drew. They favor retro recreational activities (tap dance, rather than croquet). One of them is even named Heather (Carrie MacLemore). And the movie opens with their leader, Violet (Greta Gerwig) scouting, as shark-like as anyone wearing a Peter Pan collar can be, for a fourth girl worthy to join their group.
Yet I came to love these loquacious, nutty women, who Stillman seems to have plucked from Jane Austen and rolled in equal parts P.G. Wodehouse and J.D. Salinger before dowsing them with the scent of his uniquely American-preppy sensibility. It’s true that Violet, Heather and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke, a stunner who speaks with a British accent) walk around the campus of the fictional Seven Oaks recoiling at such non-niceties as the smell of boys. But they are like Heathers who have undergone half-successful aversion therapy. They’re still snobs, but are driven by good intentions.
These girls with the floral names and keen interest in good hygiene wish to do “social work,” which includes volunteering at the campus suicide prevention center, trying to lift the spirits of misfits and depressives and making sure a transfer student like Lily (Analeigh Tipton), their new recruit, is comfortable at Seven Oaks. They don’t want her being taken in by any operators like French student Xavier (Hugo Becker) or a “playboy type” like Fred (Adam Brody). They prefer she do as they do, which might be called dating down.
Their theory on men is not so different from that espoused by Josh in Stillman’s last film, The Last Days of Disco, who made a passionate and hilarious argument against Lady (of Lady and the Tramp) giving her heart to that scamp Tramp. He would just ditch Lady for the next piece of tail, Josh insists as Alice, Chloe Sevigny’s character, listens and learns. (Worth noting: I never noticed the physical resemblance between Gerwig and Sevigny until Gerwig was Stillmanified.) Conventionally handsome types, the Big Men on Campus, are bad news. This trio believes they can improve the world by improving the lots of the nerds and “doofi” (Stillman’s word) who generally get overlooked by the pretty girls. They turn their charity work into a kind of performance art.
Lily responds with fond amusement but isn’t beyond calling the girls on their foibles: “Don’t you consider the way you talk to be arrogant as well?” she asks Violet after Violet has been dismissive of the arrogance of a BMOC. But she likes them. They — or at least Violet and Rose — are too smart and archly funny not to like (airheaded Heather may represent an earlier project taken on by the two powerhouses). There are some hookups and breakups, but for the most part, Damsels in Distress is driven not by any real drama, but the pleasure of the damsels’ company.
They are delightful: Echikunwoke has perfect timing; MacLemore brings a dreamy sweetness to her more minor role; and Tipton, who played the adorably awkward babysitter in Crazy Stupid Love, neatly manages to convey skepticism and bravado with a touching vulnerability. She’s the voice of the audience, noting the hypocrisies and eccentricities of her “somewhat perfume-obsessed” friends as needed.
But Gerwig is the heart of the movie. She gives a beautifully contained performance as Violet. For the first time since she left her Mumblecore roots for the dubious big-time of films like Arthur, she plays someone other than either the freewheeling indie chick or the scatterbrained indie chick. She’s funny, but there’s nothing broad about the comedy. Probing a heartbroken girl about her breakup, she asks if the ex-boyfriend was handsome. Affirmative. “That’s a problem,” she says with solemn patience. Violet must have seemed on paper to be a cartoon, but Gerwig creates a sense of depth in her. I’d love to see what becomes of Violet ten years down the road.
That’s typical for Stillman’s best characters of course, or was, back when he made movies regularly. This is only his fourth. Metropolitan came out in 1990, Barcelona in 1994 and The Last Days of Disco in 1998. Stillman took a break after Disco, the first of his films to lose money, which may have been advisable. Audiences tend to start to complain when repeatedly offered more of the same; Woody Allen only gets away with it because grumbling about the sameness of his things has become a way of marking time, like yearbooks or the Oscars.
Fourteen years later, Stillman is still absorbed in wit, depression and the circumstantial ties that bind young people, whether they be debutantes, classmates or colleagues just starting out in the working world together. He’s never been a director who pounds home a thesis. Certainly in Damsels in Distress he’s riffing on the age of depression, in which privileged college kids fight about who qualifies as clinically depressed versus who is just sad. “I don’t like the term depressed,” Violet says, when she falls into a funk after her pet doofus betrays her. “I prefer to say that I’m in a tailspin.” But none of his damsels are really in any peril; not when they can be cheered up with a prettily scented bar of soap or a little tap dancing. It all sounds absurd and simplistic, but I dare you to watch the joyful delirium of the big dance number, set to an old Fred Astaire tune called “Things Are Looking Up,” and not to feel an unexpected sense of rosiness. This movie may contain endorphins.