Damsels in Distress (2011, Whit Stillman)

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The legend of Whit Stillman has that he is sort of like if your very stuffy, conservative chemistry teacher got to write and direct movies — the kind of guy who alphabetizes or color codes the things in his shopping cart when he goes to Target. He’s made four features now (Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco prior to this) but this is my first experience with his work, so maybe you’ll forgive me for feeling somewhat at sea here. Without vital context, I don’t know how confident I am about my opinion except that the movie’s certainly hilarious. After maybe five slow opening minutes — when the actors seemed to still want for establishing their rhythm with Stillman’s odd, deliberately overstuffed dialogue — I almost didn’t stop laughing.

And yet, narratively the thing seems hermetic and facile, like a series of sketches. It describes the clique of college students who help out in the suicide prevention office (“We’re trying to make a difference in people’s lives, and one way to do that is to stop them from killing themselves”), which sounds more serious and/or tasteless than it is in Stillman’s hands — in a beautifully dry manner, he recasts hopeless moments as a mere folly of youth thanks in large part to the outlandishly wide-eyed perspective of Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), who finds new life in soap, dance crazes (her great ambition is to start a new one, the Sambola!), fevered battles with filthy frats and school newsies, and the fine art of dating dumb guys who didn’t realize their eyes had colors. She’s joined by the sardonic feminist Heather (Megalyn Echikunwoke, nearly stealing the picture), eerily programmed Rose (Carrie MacLemore) and newcomer Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who functions for a time as a bit of an audience vessel from the outside.

There’s so much to love about the casting, the respectful and even-handed characterization even of people deemed stupid, the deadpan Jane Austen / Woody Allen / David Mamet manner in which Stillman allows the most shallow opinions to become oddly poetic, and the pure surrealism of this heightened “liberal arts college” reality. Watch this enough and half its scenes will probably make their way into your movie-quoting vernacular for life, but its stilted, talk-driven stylistics can easily be seen as simply irritating, and the most general consequence is that each scene doesn’t seem to follow the last except that we know the three women at the center a bit better. That would probably work for me, as I can certainly handle a study of young women (and men) that isn’t rife with leering condescension, but the film attempts to build to a catharsis that doesn’t seem justified (even though it’s quite a wonderful conclusion, modeled upon Freed Unit musicals) because nothing else in it corresponds to any idea of real “structure.” And I do prefer movies that feel less tightened-up and sealed off than this, honestly, even if some of that is just not being terribly familiar with the superficial-but-sympathetic world Stillman is satirizing.

If you’re going to watch a movie in which dialogue is everything, though — and it’s sometimes (All About Eve, Broadcast News) a good idea — you could do worse than this. The casual delivery of a tossed-off gag like the one about a “Motel 4,” the cheaper version of a Motel 6, is Spinal Tap-worthy and unexpectedly side-splitting. To a degree that may even offend some viewers, the young adults in Stillman’s bubble don’t struggle with depression or questioned sexuality or even academic failure. They instead have their lives categorized and rationalized through the world-weary prism of Violet and her friends. Conflict arises with Violet starts to have an identity crisis of sorts, but even this, one can solve by dancing. It’s a lovingly silly vision from a comically privileged perspective, with just enough of a pang of truth about growing up and accepting oneself and one’s surroundings. If for nothing else, the film is valuable for its keen and cutting scenes of female friends hanging out together and exchanging in witty repartee, something women just don’t do much in American comedies; almost incidentally, Stillman establishes a believable circle of friends without simplifying them.

Greta Gerwig is the reason I saw this movie, and she remains a magician in my eyes. This has little in common with Frances Ha except its resistance to plottiness, but in the exact same way, the sadness and uncertainty in her performance is the perfect complement to the screenplay. Much of Violet’s considerable richness comes from Gerwig, not Stillman. But that script is a work of art, an incredibly densely layered one, and without using these vividly crafted people as mouthpieces it sings out with a singular, unmistakable voice — ironic in a film that has a character extolling the virtues of conformity.

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