Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Damsels in Distress

Grade: 84 (A-)

Writer-director Whit Stillman made a big splash in the 90s with a  trilogy of critical but sympathetic portraits of yuppies (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) before promptly disappearing for thirteen years. Stillman’s distinct blend of dry wit and warmth was a major influence on the burgeoning independent film scene (particularly on Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach), but for the longest time fans had to make due quoting Metropolitan to each other (one character on The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: “It would be hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait!”). Some fans were further disappointed by Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s new film. It’s a shame: they’re overlooking one of the most vibrant returns to directing in recent memory.

Lily (Analeigh Tipton) a transfer student at an East Coast university, is befriended, seemingly at random (there’s a Stillman trait) by a trio of preppy girls: leader Violet (Greta Gerwig), prickly Rose (a hilarious Megalyn Echikunwoke), and overexcited Heather (Carrie MacLemore). Violent and company make it their mission to better to campus spirit: they teach people how to dress properly, champion the lovably dumb frat-guys (rather than the often snobbish loners or “smooth operator” guys), and fight campus-wide depression with offbeat methods (tap-dancing, spreading good hygiene). Lily and Violent eventually fall for the same guy (Adam Brody), and Lily begins to chafe under Violet when she realizes that many of her methods of therapy are more for herself than for others.

It’s somewhat understandable that some Stillman fans didn’t go for Damsels in Distress. The film retains Stillman’s signature brand of dialogue (“I don’t really like the word ‘depressed. I prefer to say I’m in a tailspin”) but brings a newer, sillier tone: characters break into spontaneous song, frat guys claim to not understand the difference between colors, and the film sometimes veers strangely close in style slobby college comedies of the 80s. But while the material sometimes goes too broad (could’ve done without the anal sex jokes), Stillman maintains an assured grasp over the amiably airy proceedings. In a sense, it’s preferable that Stillman would return with a brighter, looser style rather than stick with the crisp, dry New Yorker meets Ernst Lubitsch style of the past- it shows a willingness to evolve as a filmmaker.

And no matter what, this is recognizably a Stillman film. It has the same affectionate ribbing of popular groups too often snobbishly derided in contemporary films. It has the same combination of wistfulness and clarity that so defined his 80s work. And it’s anchored by a delicate push-pull relationship between the duel protagonists: Tipton’s shy outsider, first enchanted by her new friends, then annoyed, then at a happy medium; and Gerwig’s oft-hypocritical but well-meaning and ultimately sympathetic preppy, too busy trying to help everyone else to realize that she’s suffering from the same neuroses as everyone else. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take Stillman another thirteen years to make another film.

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