First published by EyeforFilm
“Oh my God! A golden oldie! I love those!”
So declares Violet (Greta Gerwig) as a dance track comes on at the frathouse party she is attending – and this demure-seeming, verbally versatile student (the very opposite of Gerwig’s usual mumblecore rôles) suddenly bursts into a spirited dance, as though disco had never died.
You can measure how long writer/director Whit Stillman has been absent from our screens by the wrinkles that have since appeared on the face of his regular actor Taylor Nichols. In Damsels In Distress, Nichols cameos as Charles Black – a character he in fact first played in Stillman’s debut Metropolitan (1990), and then briefly reprised in Stillman’s last film before Damsels, appropriately called The Last Days of Disco (1998). Only now, instead of being a fresh-faced (if hapless) young New York socialite, Black has ended up a middle-aged professor in an east coast college, passing down his acquired wisdom to a whole new generation of well-heeled and similarly lost youth.
Yet even if Stillman’s films are situated in specific eras, they all focus upon characters who are so out of step with their times, so stuck in values that are outmoded or in overt decline, that the films themselves assume a timeless quality. If Metropolitan seems ‘quaint’, ‘mannered’ and ‘old-fashioned’ today, that was no less true when it came out over two decades ago – and its built-in nostalgia is essential to the film’s charm.
Similarly Damsels In Distress may be a contemporary tale of collegiate coming-of-age, but its very title evokes the values of a bygone age, as does the classic ‘Woody Allen’ typeface of the opening credits, and the precisely clipped vocabulary of the titular damsels, who all talk as though they have stepped out of a fin-de-siècle salon, or a screwball comedy. Conversations about the ‘decline of decadence’ or the proper plural for the word ‘doofus’ typify these characters’ (and their film’s) simultaneous engagement with and distance from the concerns of the present.
Violet and her fellow students Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) have taken it upon themselves to revolutionise Seven Oaks University, a once all-male institution that still bears the gloom – and odour – of its non-coeducational origins. These affected young women’s approach is simple, if eccentric: they perform ‘youth outreach’ by spreading their own virtues amongst the ‘sad-sacks’ and ‘losers’ in the Roman-letter fraternity houses; and, through their volunteer work at the Suicide Prevention Centre (where a hand-painted poster reads “Come on, it’s not too bad”), they try to raise the college community’s spirits through a combined therapy of donuts, dance and fragrant soap.
Yet as Lily (Analeigh Tipton), the pretty transfer student that Violet and her friends have recently taken under their wing, begins to forge her own path through the perils of university relationships, Violet finds herself ‘in a tailspin’ over her dim-witted soon-to-be-ex fratboy-friend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) and suited ‘strategic development assistant’ Charlie Walker (Adam Brody) who, as Rose points out in her inimitably improbable English intonation, “sounds like an opERatOr – playboy type.”
If Violet’s idealistic desire to improve both the world and herself is what drives Damsels In Distress, it is the imperfections of both that make the film so watchable, and so funny. The educational setting is key here, as learning, experience and adaptation become prominent (albeit never particularly serious) preoccupations, whether it is the enthusiastically moronic Thor (Billy Magnussen) ‘hitting the books’ to learn the basic colour terms that he skipped along with pre-school, or Lily encountering her first artichoke, or Violet, Charlie, Rose and Lily’s sometime boyfriend (and would-be ‘Cather’) Xavier (Hugo Becker) thoroughly reinventing – and then re-reinventing – themselves to fit into an environment that does not always easily accommodate their desires.
The results are a disorienting, surreal blend of sophisticated verbal wit and inconsequential inanity. Stillman’s film is self-consciously naff, perkily light and a whole lot of fun, but also flimsy and flawed – much like the deliriously second-rate piece of revivalistic choreography with which it closes. Yet even if, as more than one character points out, it is something of an insult to suggest that dancing is a viable solution to clinical depression, Damsels In Distress is nonetheless a joyous antidote to the grim mood of our own times. It might leave viewers with little to take away besides the spring in their step, but perhaps that really is more than enough.