By Don Simpson | May 3, 2012
Director: Whit Stillman
Writer: Whit Stillman
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Ryan Metcalf, Adam Brody, Billy Magnussen, Jermaine Crawford, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Zach Woods, Domenico D’Ippolito, Nick Blaemire, Aubrey Plaza, Hugo Becker, Meredith Hagner
It should say something to us that Seven Oaks College utilizes the Roman alphabet rather than the more commonly accepted Greek alphabet in the naming of their sorority and fraternity houses, as this references the Romans’ propensity for crude decadence over the Greeks’ philosophical pursuits. Propagated by doofi (the plural of doofus), the fraternities of Seven Oaks have de-evolved into a state of idiocracy; the situation is so grim that two male characters do not even know the names of the basic colors. (Did writer-director Whit Stillman’s name of one of these dimwits Thor [Billy Magnussen] as a reference to the Norse god or the Avenger?) We can only assume that this fictional New England university campus was once a bastion for learning, but nowadays the aimless student population is smelly, drunk, or suicidal — or a combination thereof.
The self-proclaimed exceptions to this rule are Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her friends, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore). It is Violet’s mission — besides wanting to discover the latest international dance craze and learn “as many clichés and hackneyed statements as possible” — to date men who are intellectually and attractively inferior to her (which seems quite easy to do at Seven Oaks); all the while, avoiding guys who Rose would deem, in her affected British accent, “playboys or operators.” Violet is a tall, blond, style setter; she is obsessed with scents and the history of dance crazes. Violet runs a suicide prevention center where she naively doles out coffee and donuts, teaches dance lessons, and uses scented soap to “treat” the clinically depressed. Her speech and mannerisms hint that Violet is not of this century; she seems to be cut directly from the celluloid of Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges. Speaking of time — there is no mention of when the film is set (modern cultural touchstones such as Facebook and Twitter are quite purposefully ignored, though a cell phone does appear in one scene and there is a fleeting reference to most communication being electronic); the story is like a time capsule to a non-specific decade (or combination of decades).
Violet takes a sophomore transfer student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), under her wing; quickly engulfing Lily into her world. Nonetheless, Lily resists accepting Violet as her personal savior, and Violet actually seems to respect Lily’s dissenting opinions; that is until their friendship is unintentionally torn apart by a mysterious guy named Charlie (Adam Brody)…or is it Fred? Violet is thrown into a crippling “tailspin” — not depression — until the power of The Sambola! saves her from utter ruin.
The narrative of Stillman’s first film since The Last Days of Disco (1998) follows both Violet and Lily, a tactic that adds a dash of unfocused and disjointed incoherence to the already densely hyper-intellectualized text. The exceedingly literate characters (well, excluding the the doofi, of course) speak in grammatically impeccable sentences with no slang or contractions. The stylized (and somewhat stunted) performances seem purposefully conveyed as caricatures — but these are caricatures of characters who defy any sense of stereotyping. Damsels in Distress has a certain faux-ness about it; Stillman’s characters are like cyborgs who have learned to talk, emote and move by studying the history of cinema. These are unreal beings who do not know the colors of the rainbow; have never seen an artichoke or tasted balsamic vinegar; and are naive enough to accept the procreation-free sexual practices of the Cathar religion (which shares a uniquely wrong-ended kinship with the A.L.A.).
It goes without saying that Damsels in Distress succeeds because of Greta Gerwig (though Analeigh Tipton and Adam Brody are excellent as well). I could discuss the talents of Gerwig ad nauseum, but I will spare you that lecture; instead I will hone in on the fact that she is the one (and only) actress who can simultaneously channel Alicia Silverstone and Katharine Hepburn, which is why she is perfectly cast as Violet in Damsels in Distress. Like the film, Gerwig has a timeless quality about her. She could be a George Cukor dame from the 1940s or a Woody Allen lead from the 1970s just as easily as she has become the modern day indie “It” girl. Speaking of which — Gerwig got her start as a “mumblecore” actor in Joe Swanberg’s LOL (2006), so it seems fitting that Stillman (who has been an obvious influence on much of the “mumblecore” sect) would cast her in Damsels in Distress. It is also worth noting that Stillman and “mumblecore” filmmakers share a commonality in that they make films about people from their own social and economic environments, thus unabashedly using their films to express their own worldviews. For most “mumblecore” filmmakers, that is white urbanites who are stuck in an existential limbo during their post-collegiate years; for Stillman, that is rich and privileged young people who belong to the most elite of social circles. Some call this a narrow-minded approach to filmmaking, but I call it writing about what (and who) they know. There is no one better at this than Stillman — for that reason I hope it is less than 14 years before his next film.