Damsels in Distress (Sony Pictures Classics), Whit Stillman’s first film since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco and only the fourth in his 22-year career, might be described as stubbornly peculiar. Like its blithely delusional heroine, Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), this movie takes pride in its own eccentricity: It’s Stillman letting his freak flag (fashioned, unlike most freak flags, out of rep tie silk) fly. Damsels, which follows the romantic travails of a band of coeds at a fictional East Coast college called Seven Oaks, feels, in a way, like the most autobiographical of Stillman’s movies to date: It’s the story of a girl who defiantly doesn’t fit in, imagined by a director who defiantly doesn’t.
Where Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco were sharply etched portraits of a particular social type—the collegiate and immediately post-collegiate prepster in late-20th-century free fall—in Damsels in Distress, Stillman uses his keen observational eye to chronicle a place and time that never really existed. Stillman’s fantasy of campus life suggests what WASP culture might look like to a lonely Martian brought up on Fred Astaire musicals. Unfortunately, the movie never fulfills the promise of that description.
Violet is the ringleader of a small group of girls with flower names: Lily (Analeigh Tipton), Heather (Carrie MacLemore), and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke)—who share a dorm suite and volunteer at the campus suicide prevention center. There, they well-meaningly but obliviously dole out doughnuts and free tap-dance classes to the clinically depressed while sharing their narrow but passionately held beliefs about friendship, courtship, and life.
To describe too extensively what befalls Violet and her gang over the course of the school year would strip the movie of one of its few reliable pleasures: The details, if not the plot arc as a whole, are always surprising. You couldn’t have predicted that Lily, Violet’s naïve sophomore protégée, would hook up with a French grad student (Hugo Becker) who derives his curious sexual practices from his fierce devotion to the medieval Cathar heresy. Nor would you expect the prim, studious Violet to pine for a frat boy so stupid he struggles with the difference between green and blue. (The lovably doltish Frank, played with maximum density by a very funny Ryan Metcalf, at least has a few IQ points on his frat bro Thor, who sobs in frustration trying to identify any color in the rainbow.)
Stillman has always excelled at writing a certain style of comic dialogue in which characters converse earnestly with one another in a kind of hermetic preppy code, completely unaware of how ridiculous and insular they sound to us (though our disposition toward them is affectionate, not mocking). In fact, Stillman’s first and best movie, the effervescent drawing-room satire Metropolitan, took that code—and the characters’ anxiety about how it would translate to their imminent post-college lives—as one of its main subjects. In Damsels in Distress, the Stillman style has come unmoored from its reason for existence. Too ethereal to be a satire and too arch to be a psychologically recognizable character portrait, Damsels in Distress flits prettily by without ever finding anything to be about. We don’t know how to enter into any of the girls’ stories, though Violet’s comes frustratingly close to inviting us in.
During a mid-semester depressive crisis, Violet takes off on a solo road trip—a development that could have been the occasion to open the movie onto a larger world. What would happen when this girl’s rigid, programmatic beliefs about proper behavior were brought into a context where they made no sense? There’s potential for both comic and dramatic gold there, and Greta Gerwig, whose sad-eyed screwball moxie makes her an ideal Stillman muse, could have mined either vein. Instead, he gives us a quick scene in a diner—one of the movie’s worst—in which Violet wows her waitresses and some fellow customers with the fresh-smelling hotel soap she says gave her the will to live. If Violet’s dark night of the soul can be resolved with a single whiff of soap, why should we continue to care about her mysterious past, or which boy she pines for, or whether her dream of starting an international dance craze will ever come true? And if the soap-cures-depression scene is meant as some kind of dark joke—if Violet is, in fact, only tap dancing around the grim truth of her own mental illness—why is the remaining half-hour of the movie not only not dark but downright pastel?
Still, there are some lovely pastel touches in Damsels in Distress. Ciera Wells’ whimsical costumes and Doug Emmett’s rose-and-gold cinematography look fantastic. And I almost—almost—fell for the closing full-cast song-and-dance number, when, in Shakespearean-comedy fashion, the various couples partner up and skip through the wooded Seven Oaks campus, dancing and singing to the Gershwin brothers’ song “Things Are Looking Up,” (which was first performed by Fred Astaire in a 1937 musical called A Damsel in Distress). None of them can really sing or dance that well, but the charming ensemble (including Adam Brody as an eternal grad student on the make) sets to it with a will. There’s something pleasingly nutty about choosing to end a movie this gauzy and insubstantial with a defiantly candy-colored tribute to the even more gauzy and insubstantial tradition of 1930s musicals. If the movie that preceded it had offered us anything at all of substance to chew on, the Gershwin number would have made the perfect dessert.