'Damsels in Distress': Coed clique's capers on campus
Fans of Whit Stillman's work - Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco - will need no more impetus to see his new film other than the knowledge it exists. Whit Stillman? I'm there.
But the previous titles, sly, sophisticated comedies of manners (and mannerisms), came out in the 1990s. So last century. There are college grads who weren't even born when Metropolitan, about New York debutantes and young snoots - and one tattered interloper - first was released. What's in Damsels in Distress for them?
Well, for one thing, there's Greta Gerwig, the goofily charming actress who emerged a few years back from DIY indies and who displays a kind of awkward grace (or graceful awkwardness) that sets her apart from almost every other actress. Gerwig, tall and beaming, leads a pack of amusingly smug coeds at a fictitious East Coast college, Seven Oaks. Her Violet patrols the campus alongside Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), studying and satirizing the mating patterns of their less-enlightened sisters and the frat-boy numskulls they pursue - their "distress."
Stillman hasn't expanded his purview much, or pushed himself to explore new issues and themes: His characters still talk in complete sentences, declaiming and deadpanning, making their case with misguided passion and no little irony. Violet, Rose, and Heather take in a newcomer, a transfer student named Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who warily joins this peculiar clique and attends to their observations and advice about campus life, about boys, about what to wear.
As Damsels shambles merrily along, Stillman does show a new what-the-heck kind of playfulness. (Detractors could argue that it's a new kind of desperation.) There are sight gags (a sign for the suicide-prevention center where the girls volunteer is missing its "prevention" shingle), and there are musical numbers, too. One of Violet's missions in life is to start an "international dance craze," so there is a big dance, and music, and some mulling about the meaning of it all.
On the surface, Damsels in Distress hardly seems to relate to what's taking place on campuses today, in the real world. Beneath the surface, perhaps, Stillman's small, sprightly film kicks around serious stuff about women and men, about social pecking orders and the pursuit of a dream. He kicks it around, but not very seriously.