Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Damsels In Distress, the first film from writer-director Whit Stillman in well over a decade, is its unassuming lightness. Any expectations of grand statements, mostly fermented in the gap between this and 1998’s The Last Days Of Disco, are dissipated almost immediately by a buoyant pep.
This is in no small part due to the film’s star, indie darling Greta Gerwig. For years the poster child of ‘mumblecore’ flicks by the likes of Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, Gerwig’s unconventional charm recently propped up No Strings Attached and graced Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. Here, she is Violet, lead moppet in a clutch of florally-named students, whose altruistic tendencies lead them to run their leafy East Coast college’s Suicide Prevention Centre. Their preferred methods? Doughnuts and dancing.
Already, we’re in radically different waters to that of Stillman’s 90s work, which, while divisive, skewered America’s upper-class milieu with dry wit and keenly-observed satire. At his best, especially in his debut, the semi-autobiographical debutante drama Metropolitan, Stillman bridged the gap between Woody Allen in his ensemble phase (Hannah And Her Sisters) and Wes Anderson’s fondness for the dysfunctional idiosyncrasy that can only come from moneyed privilege (The Royal Tenenbaums).
Damsels shares neither the distinct locations (New York, Barcelona), nor the narrative focus of Stillman’s previous films. If anything, the director has become more novelistic in his approach – and this is a chap who once followed one of his movies with a tie-in paperback. Where his plots in the past were defined by the endings of eras (Disco), or the passing of social calendars (Metropolitan), here we are treated to various sketches of campus life, each headed with its own chapter-like title card. There’s even a last-gasp gag, where, as the final scene fades, a prim message appears on screen, promising ‘footnotes to come’.
By then, we’ve been treated to a slowly-developing portrait of Violet and her gang. We’ve learned about her obsession with dance crazes, and her ambition to start one of her own (which, it turns out, she does, called the ‘Sambola’). We also see the full extent of Violet’s ‘social work’, which consists of dating buffoonish, idiotic frat boys with the view to helping them reach their full potential.
Throughout, Stillman’s satire is softer, and the overall tone is much gentler than one would expect. It also, at times, strays almost too closely to – whisper it – kookiness. Whereas before his characters could be unwittingly twattish, this time around his damsels and dudes are far too gloriously dumb, or deliriously gormless.
It must be said, though, that this lighter tone is rather fetching. There’s something undeniably, unavoidably fresh about hearing Stillman’s mannered, meticulous dialogue performed by a new generation of young actors, most of whom have made the leap from TV to the big screen. As a caddish campus con-man, Adam Brody finally fulfills his nerdy potential, and cameo appearances from Aubrey Plaza and Alia Shawkat – one as a deeply depressed dancer, the other as a grumpy dorm-mate – further stress that they are actresses to watch.
However, despite the pluralised title, the film hinges on its lead. Astoundingly, given her background in improvised, often drawling comedy, Gerwig proves to have impeccable comic timing, and just the right balance of laconic deadpan and disarming charm to make Violet – who is in constant conflict with her patronising motives, and her selfless intentions – into a compelling character.
If there is kookiness here, it is remarkably unaffected. In comparison to the quirky pseudo-indie comedies that have flooded the market during Stillman’s protracted hiatus, there is something genuinely barmy about Damsels In Distress. Maybe it’s the lean, yet effective production, and the resourcefulness that comes with making the most of a sub-$3 million budget. Or maybe it’s the propensity towards tearing up the rulebook at the last minute, and indulging in a cross-campus dance sequence, backed by a Gershwin showtune.
Whatever it is, Stillman has certainly found a new strain of delightful silliness in this queer trifle. For while Damsels In Distress is far from his sharpest work to date, it’s certainly his most fun.