by Mel Valentin
The return of indie-art auteur Whit Stillman is, at least for some cineastes, something of an event, something to be applauded, wished-for, anticipated, and even dreaded given Stillman’s prolonged, Kubrick-like absence from modestly sized arthouse screens for more than a decade (fourteen years to be exact). His fourth film, "Damsels in Distress," can’t be described as a “return to form,” since that would imply a fall from the lofty aesthetic standards Stillman set for himself and critics acknowledged as such. Absence, however, is something else altogether. There (or here), the concern centers primarily on whether Stillman’s obvious talents as a filmmaker have atrophied or otherwise degenerated. On the strength of "Damsels in Distress," the answer, thankfully, seems to be “no” (with minor caveats).It takes mere seconds for moviegoers to realize they’re in a slightly off-kilter, alternate reality, the Stillman-verse. Stillman breaks down the opening credits into the female cast (the “damsels” of the title) and the male cast members (the “distress”). It’s the first of seemingly innumerable riffs, gags, or jokes that gently re-introduce moviegoers and critics alike to Stillman’s eccentric universe of hyper-articulate, self-obsessed, slightly pretentious (sometimes fully pretentious), status-seeking, upper-middle-class, heterosexual characters. For Damsels in Distress shifts the focus from Manhattan or Europe to liberal arts college, Stone Oak University, somewhere in the northeast. The characters are, as expected, unashamedly, self-indulgently, self-absorbed, hyper-verbal, but not hyper-aware (they think they are, but they aren’t), and almost always well-intentioned.
"Welcome back to the Stillman-Verse."
Stillman’s characters, of course, have names and identities. Stillman introduces his heroines during the first week of the fall semester. Violet (Greta Gerwig), the self-styled leader, and her posse, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), encounter Lily (Analeigh Tipton, Crazy, Stupid, Love), at an orientation meeting for new students. Almost immediately, they decide to take Lily under their wing, Mean Girls-style (except not), remaking her in their image, from clothes and make-up to attitudes about life and men, especially the university’s Roman-lettered fraternities. Violet sees herself as a generous, kind-hearted person, meant to bring color and life to those she considers less fortunate. Not surprisingly, Violet runs the Student Prevention Center, opting for donuts, coffee, talk, and tap dancing.
Lily doesn’t quite fall in line with Violet’s ideas, setting off what passes for conflict in Damsels in Distress. The real conflict comes from the discrepancy between Violet’s ideas, including of herself, and the real world (as “real” as it gets in Stillman’s universe). Men, of course, play a central role in Violet’s changing world view. She prefers the dim-bulb Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a walking, mumbling cliché (a.k.a., frat boy) because he’s (a) easier to control and (b) allows Violet to feel superior on a regular basis. Lily finds herself in a romantic triangle with a graduate student, Tom (Hugo Becker) and his girlfriend, Alice. Stillman adds a fourth character, Charlie (Adam Brody), whose presence adds romantic unpredictability to the proceedings.Stillman gives Heather a romantic subplot of her own with another frat boy, Thor (Billy Magnussen), mining laughs to diminishing returns from Thor’s inability to discern colors due, not to color blindness, but a lacunae in his elementary education. Stillman leaves Rose on the outside looking in, romance wise. It’s difficult not to wonder if Rose’s tertiary status is due to running time, forgetfulness, lack of interest, or Stillman’s utopian (thus, unrealistic) color-blind approach to casting and characters. Whatever the reason, it’s cause, if not for concern, then inquiry. For all its clever, sharp dialogue, much of it uttered by Violet, "Damsels in Distress" ultimately falls prey to romantic comedy conventions, up to and including a final dance number that resolves the romantic triangles and quadrangles to the satisfaction of everyone onscreen (less so for everyone off-screen).
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originally posted: 04/06/12 09:00:00