They Got Rhythm
by Sarah Silver
Damsels in Distress
Dir. Whit Stillman, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
Throughout his slight filmography, Whit Stillman has focused on the lives of well-to-do young protagonists who label themselves (the socialites of Metropolitan coin the term UHB—Urban Haute Bourgeoisie—to describe their social standing), or question the labels placed on them (the trendy elitists of The Last Days of Disco debate the connotations of “preppie” and “yuppie”). However, Stillman’s characters remain relatable to those of us who have never attended a debutante ball thanks to the cracks in their foundations; the threat of their means suddenly disappearing looms large, or some Holden Caulfield “madmen stuff” has them teetering on the brink of mild depression and temporary insanity.
Metropolitan’s Tom Townsend lives on the wrong side of town and can barely afford his rented tuxedo; Barcelona’s Ted and Fred Boynton are neurotic and paranoid; and in The Last Days of Disco, allusions are made to Josh’s manic-depression, and Jimmy declares himself “Too depressed to dance.” As the title of Stillman’s first film in fourteen years, Damsels in Distress, would suggest, its heroines have much in common with their predecessors; they are both upper-class and anxiety-ridden, well-off, but poorly.
Damsels opens at a meet-and-greet new-student registration event at fictional college Seven Oaks, where a clique of three college girls, Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore), and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), are scoping out a potential new addition, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), for their human bouquet. Lily’s black Converse and casual Forever 21 style clashes with the polished cotton prints, sheer scarves, and pastel heels of the other girls, and her gangly figure lopes alongside their wall of Stepford Wives meticulousness; she’s all eyes and lips, like a young, female Mick Jagger.
“I love clichés and hackneyed expressions of every kind because they’re largely true,” says Violet, perhaps justifying the film’s more overtly comical and less nuanced characters, a contrast to those of, say, Metropolitan. Apart from Violet, these ladies are painted in fairly broad strokes, adhering to female archetypes that continually resurface in television, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to The Golden Girls to Sex and the City. Heather is ingenuous and simple, Rose is tough and skeptical, and Lily becomes more sexually open and slightly jaded after falling victim to the less-than-honorable intentions of a skeevy Frenchman named Xavier (Hugo Becker). Violet, the leader of the pack, is more difficult to pin down, especially considering the fact that her identity is largely based on her own fabrications.
These girls are on a mission to stamp out depression at Seven Oaks, which they carry out by providing coffee and doughnuts, as well as fielding calls at the campus Suicide Prevention Center. Violet also runs a tap dance class to lift the spirits of at-risk youths (though her wonky tapping rivals only that of Christina Ricci in Buffalo 66 in terms of top offenses to that great American art form). As far as cinematic campus brat packs go, these women wield less influence than the Heathers, and are less vindictive than the Mean Girls. The Damsels, though known, are not revered, and, in fact, may well be considered outcasts. Violet is belittled by Rick DeWolf (Zach Woods), editor of the school paper, the Daily Complainer, as being “unkind and pedantic,” and Depressed Debbie (Aubrey Plaza) mocks Violet’s tap dancing therapy, even as she participates in it. Violet, despite her take-charge attitude, suffers from low self-esteem, and, like Ted Boynton, strictly pursues partners who are not “too good-looking,” preferring, instead, non-threatening “fixer-uppers,” too dumb and unattractive to cheat. Nonetheless, her doltish boyfriend, Frank (Ryan Metcalf), manages to seduce another girl, sending Violet into the kind of tailspin for which she usually gives counsel.
Stillman’s character- and dialogue-driven films tend to feature unforgettable male roles, but he has also consistently demonstrated an uncanny ability to write for women. Like Eric Rohmer, Stillman creates female characters who are neither put on pedestals nor demonized for their sexuality, and the dialogue among them is shrewdly observed, featuring all the self-doubt, backhanded compliments, suspicion, and mutual concern with which female conversations are laced. In Damsels, Stillman again nails female interaction (Violet, to Lily, when lending a dress: “I’m a lot fatter than you are. I think you could fit in it.”) And like Mira Sorvino and Chloë Sevigny before her, Greta Gerwig—still perhaps best known for her association with the “mumblecore” movement, with its inscrutable improvised dialogues, sloughed off the inside of the mouth—is transformed into a Stillman Woman, delivering her precisely written lines (doubtless, to the letter) in the specific, musical cadence of Stillman’s previous films. She has a strong physical presence, yet remains delicate; she is acerbic, yet her every jab is underscored by tones of naiveté and insecurity.
However, running gags about boys on campus being physically foul (Seven Oaks is “notorious for its B.O.”) and infuriatingly stupid (Frank never learned his colors), ultimately deprive us of some of the delectable back-and-forth we’ve come to expect between the sexes in Stillman’s films. Aside from minor characters Rick and Xavier, the only eloquent man here is Charlie Walker, alias Fred Packenstacker (Adam Brody). As Charlie, Brody exudes the same haughty charm born of both self-satisfaction and self-loathing as Stillman favorite Chris Eigeman. Both actors were featured, at one point or another, in The Gilmore Girls, a series whose rapid-fire repartee owed some debt to Stillman, and from which, in turn, the director now seems to have borrowed some inspiration in creating this cultured campus comedy.
Like the danses de salon he so often references, Stillman’s films are simultaneously classical and reverent of pop culture; in Barcelona Ted Boynton holds a Bible as he spontaneously performs a transcendent jitterbug to “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” Nothing quite so sublime or surprising happens here (Violet talks a good game about starting a dance craze, but, when we finally see her perform her invented “The Sambola” at film’s end, it is a cumbersome amalgam of many other ballroom dance steps). Like The Last Days of Disco, Damsels ends with a musical number. Considering the staccato rhythms of his dialogue, one might call his films postmodern, singing-free musicals (sometimes characters actually have verbal mannerisms that are like leitmotifs, such as Rose continually calling men out for their “playboy” or “operator” moves in the same measured tone). At any rate, after fourteen years, it’s good to hear Stillman’s music again, a mélange of pomp and pop that will ring familiar to fans, like the voice of an old friend calling for the first time in years.