Whit Stillman is one of those divisive, unprolific writer/directors whose work is so dense it’s as if he needs to give the audience years between films to unpack all of their content. It’s not just because his pretentious, often overly articulate characters zing off dialogue like Howard Hawks ensembles with Ivy League comprehensions of literary and social theory. Stillman’s characters aren’t bantering as means of communication or flirtation as much as they are rambling out loud in clumsy, intellectualized attempts to understand themselves and the world that lies before them, outside of their micro-universe. The space between projects, by most accounts, is really due to the fact the he works slowly and often struggles for funding.
In his first feature in 13 years, “Damsels in Distress,” the micro-universe is the fictional private liberal arts college Seven Oaks, which finds a new student, Lily (the gamine Analeigh Tipton), now enrolled as a sophomore and taken under the wing of some mid-century-costumed sorority girls who view the collegiate environment around them (and the young men therein) as some kind of barbarian wilderness worthy of both compassionate rehabilitation and downright revulsion. Which is to say: Yes, they’re snobs, and their snobbiness is championed by their leader, Violet (Greta Gerwig), but also tempered by her sincere outreach efforts. For instance, they take in young Lily to make sure she doesn’t go astray, Violet dates a hapless dope of a frat guy with the intention of grooming him, and, together, the ladies run the Suicide Prevention Center that offers their suicidal peers donuts and memorizing tap-dancing choreography. While it might be difficult to take seriously the hopeless absurdity of a young woman taking tap-dancing therapy, well, this is the stuff of Stillman, and the stuff of comic genius.
When Violet’s frat guy cheats on her (with another young lady she’s been rehabilitating) she plummets into an awful, peerless depression, which it seems even her own preferred counseling can’t alleviate. It becomes an unbearably pitiful turn in Violet’s stern Waspishness. This is one of the true gifts of Stillman: with a few melodramatic pratfalls, dialogue clues, and time, he makes even a scornfully stuck-up, unsympathetic character wholly relatable, as if we’re all Violets, struggling to gain purchase in our life’s meaningful ambition. Hers just happens to be, you know, starting a dance craze.
While Violet is clearly the star, and Lily her functional foil, the brilliance of “Damsels” lies in the strength of the ensemble as a whole. Violet’s right-hand women, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) first appear dull and bubble-headed, prone to parroting Violet’s turns of phrase. As the film progresses, however, quirks about each flesh out their characters. The male half of the cast is considerably less luminous, though there’s some deadpan excellence in the performances of Adam Brody (of “OC” fame) and Frenchman Hugo Becker (who looks like the second coming of Louis Jourdan), who play romantic rivals. And the success of this group of young actors, each of glaringly varied levels of talent, is another hallmark of Stillman’s gifts. Actresses like Gerwig, who broke out in a semi-improvisational, awkward genre like mumblecore, are able to broaden their talents with Stillman’s snappy witticisms, dry humor and penchant for ungainly and antiquated phrasing with pristine nonchalance. Stillman’s lofty script demands have the curious ability to make weak or stunted actors look great, or even natural.
With features like the glossy cinematography, unabashed worship of youthful frivolity and, especially, the nostalgic musical number conclusion, there are moments when it feels like Stillman’s packing in too much sentimentality or clamoring to pay homage to the kind of simple, sweet comedies he always admired but hasn’t exactly made. It’s a warm and loving gesture, but feels a little clunky in an already crowded plot, and very much like an old man’s dusty reverence for things past. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if we hadn’t seen it so mawkishly done before, like with Woody Allen’s 1996 musical “Everyone Says I Love You,” or if we didn’t already have so much material to work with in Stillman’s storytelling. Nevertheless, it’s a delightful comedy that still showcases the unique strengths of a classic auteur.