Writer-director Whit Stillman makes a delightful comeback with the witty 'Damsels in Distress'
If you think you’ve waited a long time for “The Avengers” to
hit the screen, imagine how fans of writer-director Whit Stillman must feel
about “Damsels in Distress”: Stillman, who became an art-house darling with
“Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco” in the 1990s, has
taken almost 14 years off from filmmaking. Even so, the long hiatus has not
tarnished his talent for concocting deliciously witty, eccentric comedies, and
“Damsels” shows Stillman returning to the game in high style.
Stillman’s reputation was built on stories about privileged
young people trying to maintain their lofty ideals while making their way
through the dreaded Real World (a far cry from MTV’s “Real World,” a series a
typical Stillman character would probably never be caught dead watching).
“Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “Disco” are like Woody Allen films for the Gen
X set; “Damsels” continues the theme as Stillman once again demonstrates his
skill in crafting fascinatingly offbeat female characters, like the
unapologetically opportunistic vampire Kate Beckinsale played in “Disco,” or
Carolyn Farina’s intellectually inclined debutante in “Metropolitan,” who joins
in the customs of her social circle while seeing through the people who
“Damsels” introduces us to Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), a
student who runs the “Suicide Center” — it’s supposed to be the “Suicide
Prevention Center,” but the middle panel of the sign is missing — at the
fictitious Seven Oaks College. Although she operates within a cocoon of supposedly
hard-earned wisdom, Violet’s ambitions seem awfully daydreamy. She’s a firm
believer in the healing power of tap-dancing and her ultimate fantasy is to
take her choreographic creation, the Sambola (“The Devil’s Dance!” she dubs
Before she can do that, however, the cheerfully domineering Violet
has to shoulder the burden of leading her classmates through the minefield of
life at a liberal-arts school, where heartbreaks and shattered illusions show
up as regularly as pop quizzes. “You can love someone whose mental capacity is
not large,” Violet counsels a friend. “I know! I have!”
Gerwig makes Violet’s high-mindedness utterly endearing and
hilarious; with her sophisticated sweep and sweetly clueless nature, she seems to
have just stepped out of a 1930s Carole Lombard comedy. Even when Violet is
putting people down — she calls the surly editor of the college paper, The
Daily Complainer, “unkind, self-righteous and pedantic; in other words, a model
journalist” — she can’t help but sound lovable. Rare is the actress who could
take a line like “When you have problems yourself, it’s great to hear about
someone else’s truly idiotic ones” and make it completely disarming, but Gerwig
does it effortlessly.
Analeigh Tipton also shines as Lily, the campus newcomer who
is immediately taken under Violet’s wing, even though she doesn’t completely
fall under Violet’s spell like the blissfully bubble-brained Heather (Carrie
MacLemore) or the cautious, amusingly affected Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke). If,
as their names indicate, the women are all flowers, the men are mostly thorns,
some of them sharp, such as Adam Brody’s pretentious fop who is writing a
thesis on “the decline of decadence,” and some of them amusingly blunted, such
as the hard-working but dim-witted Thor (Billy Magnussen).
Welcome back, Mr. Stillman — and please don’t make us wait
another 14 years for your next film.