The films of Whit Stillman are like the doodling of a wellborn, eccentric amateur. The trends and excesses of the upper crust are his favorite prey, affectionately satirized and gently parodied.
His Reagan-era trilogy “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco” distilled martini-dry humor from the foibles of the trust-fund set. “Damsels in Distress,” Stillman’s first film in 14 years, moves his idiosyncratic drawing-room comedy to a dorm room. It’s a slight piece of work, but agreeably peculiar and endearing.
The damsels of the title are Violet, Heather and Rose (Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke), New England coeds with Audrey Hepburn fashion sensibilities. The new flower in the bouquet is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student in jeans and black Converse tennies, ripe for a wardrobe and behavioral makeover. Their distress is the school’s frat pack, barbarians of awe-inspiring stupidity.
The girls are lovely anachronisms, ostentatious in their gentility (prudish Rose, in her prim English accent, warns newcomer Lily against the campus “playboys and operators.”) They are retro-classy “Philadelphia Story” girls in a “Jersey Shore” world. They see their appalling male counterparts as unfortunates to be helped, not mocked.
Violet explains her strategy of dating men who are not her intellectual equals in the language of charity. She leads her clique to volunteer service at the campus Suicide Prevention Center, offering doughnuts, tap-dance lessons and pleasantly scented soaps to the forlorn visitors. “We’re trying to make a difference in people’s lives,” she explains, “and one way to do that is to prevent them from killing themselves.” Violet’s life goal is to lift the world’s spirits by creating a dance craze, an antidepressant that’s free for everyone.
The film ironically deflates that cockeyed do-gooderism (Stillman’s sentiments are unashamedly conservative), but we never question Violet’s sincerity. Stillman’s renderings of his characters have more the quality of portrait sketches than of caricature. He writes for women wonderfully and clearly adores his actresses.
Violet is part Miss Jean Brodie, part Stepford wife and all twit, but with Gerwig’s help Stillman gives her every virtue a twit can have – cheerfulness, modesty, kindness, self-reliance and boundless courage. Even at her lowest ebb, when her oafish “fixer-upper” boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) somehow seduces another girl, she keeps her chin up. “I don’t really like the word depressed,” she says.”I prefer to say that I’m in a tailspin.”
You can’t help loving her. Even female characters that zip by and disappear, like Aubrey Plaza as a grouchy suicide center client, are little shards of pleasure.
Stillman’s efforts at broad comedy are pretty stiff. The No. 1 campus dummy, Thor (Billy Magnussen), is so thickheaded he hasn’t learned his colors yet. The campus paper is The Daily Complainer. The school’s dejected education majors fling themselves from the roof of the Ed. Building, which is only two stories high. Such creaky jibes feel out of place in the overall scheme of the film, which is about casting off one’s self-invented persona to become authentic.
When the various romantic knots are untied, the cast reunites in a buoyantly artificial musical finale. Stillman even diagrams the steps if you want to dance along. In a sea of mean-spirited comedies, how wonderful to find one that openheartedly endorses happiness.