From the moment the Sony Pictures Classics logo pops up not in the usual blue — but in cupcake frosting pink — you know that Whit Stillman‘s first film in 13 years (!) is going to be something special. While word from Venice — where the film closed the festival before heading to TIFF — was good, the question to be answered was whether or not Stillman’s style and cinematic persona would stand up in a filmmaking landscape that has changed immensely since “Last Days of Disco.” Well, let there be no doubt: Stillman is just as enjoyable as when we last met him those many years ago and “Damsels In Distress” finds the director with lots (and lots and lots) left to say.
Welcome to Seven Oaks University. Shot in soft honey hued yellows and baby blue pastels, there is no doubt you are stepping into a hyper-realized, dreamlike East coast college campus, and whether or not you’re familiar with that world (or its sensibilities) will largely determine your enjoyment of the film. Indeed, Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) and her gals Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) are hilarious archetypes of intelligent and well-intentioned, but somewhat arrogant and pretentious students (usually of the art school variety) who perceive those outside their circle with a certain condescension and pity. Violet is determined to make a difference in people’s lives any way she can and her first project is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a new transfer student who she hopes to guide around Seven Oaks, and who soon ends up rooming with the girls. Taking Violet’s strange but determined goals to heart, she joins the girls at the campus Suicide Prevention Center where they work and push forward their ideals that good hygiene, tap dancing and the pleasant odor of perfume are the keys to mental health.
It’s when they “rescue” Priss (Caitlin Fitzgerald) from a possible suicide attempt that even more of Violet’s strange beliefs come forward. She tells Priss that it’s her preference to date men who are not only dumber than she is, but also not traditionally handsome. It’s clearly a mechanism for her to stay protected from heartbreak and in control of her own relationship to Frank (Ryan Metcalfe), her dim boyfriend. But when she finds him cheating, coupled with Lily’s intellectual challenges to her belief system that is rife with hypocrisy, Violet goes into a self-described “tailspin” that finds her reassessing everything she has carefully contrived into her persona. And though it would never have been possible, men begin entering the picture with the smooth Charlie (Adam Brody), the exotic Xavier (Hugo Becker) and the plainly stupid Thor (Billy Magnussen) becoming involved in the girls’ lives as potential suitors.
In case you haven’t guessed, Stillman bravely goes out on a high wire for this film and presents a world that is completely and wholly his own. And judging by the small, but continual walkouts during the film, you will either embrace it or you won’t. Admittedly for this writer, it took a good 10 to 15 minutes to settle into Stillman’s cotton candy-meets-university syllabus style, but once in there, it’s mostly a pure joy. Dialogue has always been Stillman’s strong suit and he delivers quips, one liners, high brow jokes and (less successfully) low brow guffaws in spades. It’s a whipsmart and arch screenplay and for viewers willing to play along, it’s a pleasure unraveling the wordplay the actors clearly enjoy delivering (and do so with ease, which we can only imagine was due to extensive rehearsals). But not everything in the film is a success.
Stillman is so invested in portraying life at Seven Oaks through the distinct lenses of Violet and her girls, that the male characters are mostly presented as doufi (and yes, that is Stillman’s preferred). The girls see most men on campus as primitive (and horribly smelly) and thus, outside of Charlie and Francis, the guys are morons. This leads to some of the film’s biggest whiffs on jokes. An extended sequence about Thor having grown up without ever learning the colors falls flat, as does a mini-running gag about a misspelled note by Frank kept as a keepsake by Violet. It’s these forays into broad comedy that wobble the film’s impact, and a subplot involving anal sex is not quite as shocking or amusing as Stillman thinks it is. And while its (at times self-aware) cleverness is great fun, Stillman can’t keep up the energy, as by time the “Damsels In Distress” gets to its two closing musical and dance numbers (yep) our interest in the film had long since waned.
For anyone curious about possible Oscar play for the picture, it’s not going to happen. “Damsels Is Distress” is just way too out there anybody in the Academy and while the cast is good, it’s really Stillman’s work on the page and behind the camera that is the real star. But again, the daffy universe the film takes place in requires an act of good will on behalf of the audience that isn’t always rewarded. However, it will be interesting to see if the movie will gain any traction with those not familiar with his oeuvre (though if fans of Adam Brody get turned on to Stillman, that can’t be a bad thing), but longtime fans will be glad to know that Stillman is back — and it’s like he was never gone. [B] —review by Kevin Jagernauth