‘Damsels’ a fine return to form

By Drew Hunt

After a 13-year hiatus from filmmaking spent in Spain working as a sales agent for local filmmakers, Whit Stillman has returned to American shores with a new film called “Damsels in Distress,” a comedy starring Greta Gerwig. The film had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival last September, and U.S. audiences have been eager to see what Stillman has in store ever since.

In the film, Gerwig plays the prim and proper Violet, the head of a trio of girls (including Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore) who make it their mission to override the “atmosphere of male barbarism” that permeates their small East Coast college. During new student orientation, they befriend transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) and take her under their wing.

Even with its obtuse plotting, “Damsels in Distress” marches to the beat of its own drum. Like Stillman’s other works, an overly analytical mind doesn’t exactly behoove the screwball universe he dreams up. Everything transpires on the richly realized surface, and the result is a whimsical—if occasionally irritating—comedic romp brimming with memorable performances.

Among the assorted crusades undertaken by Violet and her cohorts are a suicide prevention center that treats depression with doughnuts and tap-dancing and a seemingly altruistic stance on dating dopey frat boys. According to Violet, the key problem in contemporary dating is, “the tendency to seek someone cooler than yourself. Why not instead find someone who’s inferior?” They call this method, “social work.”

If these assorted quirks feel familiar, it’s because they are. Despite the brevity of his filmography, Stillman has influenced the work of dozens of filmmakers. Noah Baumbach is perhaps the most readily recognizable, with the other being Wes Anderson, who usurped Stillman’s sense of humor—a sort of good-natured satire mixed with keenly observed absurdism—and clothed it in a shrunken tweed jacket.

But dating back to his first film, 1990’s “Metropolitan”, Stillman expressed supreme distaste for what he labeled the “haute bourgeoisie,” the sort of upper-class urbanites Anderson portrayed in films like “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” In “Damsels in Distress” Stillman continues to display an antipathy toward the social distinction of “coolness,” particularly when depicted as eccentricity. As Lily says in one of the film’s few candid scenes, “Does the world really need more of those traits? Aren’t such people usually pains in the neck? What the world needs to work properly is a large mass of normal people. I’d like to be one of those.”

What sounds like a narrow-minded and even oppressive worldview is anything but. Stillman doesn’t decry individualism—he decries ostentation. In yearning to appear unique, people often forget to be themselves. “Damsels in Distress” is filled with characters who aren’t at all what they appear to be: Violet’s name is actually Emily Tweeter; Adam Brody plays a student who masquerades as a businessman to pick up girls in bars; and one character’s British accent supposedly materialized after she spent no more than six weeks there.

With an occasional wink at the camera and more than one dance number in tow, “Damsels in Distress” is ultimately a sympathetic portrait of the ways young people strive to define themselves and the ways in which they shield their insecurities with a manufactured public image.