Stillman Makes Welcome Return with Breezy 'Damsels in Distress'
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Whit Stillman's comedy "Damsels in Distress" captivates with a brisk, broad and bright comedic sensibility that speaks to a certain kind of audience. Packed with on-campus dry hijinks (dry-jinks?), it makes, say, Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" feel grim and gritty in comparison. Yet, I laughed, and also appreciated not only the arch and artificial comedy of good intentions unfolding, but also the fact that Stillman has finally gotten a film to theaters at all in the long wake since 1998's "The Last Days of Disco."
But Stillman does not merely get points for showing up, nor does he merely get points here for not screwing up. "Damsels in Distress" is breezy, improved by both an on-screen collaboration with New York actress Greta Gerwig, and also a series of off-screen collaborations -- including with writer-director Lena Dunham and producer Alicia Van Couvering. The tone of Stillman's story -- as restrained senior Violet (Gerwig) takes newly-arrived transfer student Lilly (Analeigh Tipton) under her wing -- manages to evoke Salinger and "Animal House," old musicals and the rat-a-tat language of days gone by. But just as in his earlier films -- "Barcelona," "Metropolitan" -- Stillman does so with a sweetness and heart under every scene, no matter how subtly outlandish or deliberately, gloriously synthetic.
When Violet's advice to Lily on life and love comes to naught, as her own heart slightly breaks, she goes into "a tailspin." Note that for the brave and brightly babbling Violet, the biggest visible sign of distress is that she's no longer buttoning down the collars of her button-down shirts. Earlier, Violet keeps hours at the suicide prevention center, but she's very particular about who gets a donut during drop-in hours, as there have been concerns from the sponsors. Violet's artificial self and formal manner will strike a chord with anyone who's been near a university in the past 40 years; the classic nature of the comedy and characters on campus are matched by the classic campus-film look of the movie. Filmed on and about the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden in Staten Island, N.Y., the film owes a debt to the hard work on the part of location manager Chris Menges. Menges and costume designer Ciera Wells (special fashions by Krista Blomberg) create a vision of campus life that's both knowing and ordinary.
It's Gerwig's work as Violet, a cockeyed optimist who believes in the power of smell and comes back from adversity full of the self-delusional self-discovery of college, that steals the film. Tipton, turned into a smutty joke in "Crazy, Stupid, Love.," is also excellent as Lily, who grows -- and grows a little cruel -- under Violet's tutelage and introductions. There are standouts in the supporting cast, including Adam Brody as the possible source of distress to many different damsels, and Megalyn Echikunwoke as Violet's best friend, Rose, whose round, upper-class British pronunciation of words like "operator" and "especially" is both funny and key to a lynchpin scene.
Shot on the Red digital camera (and it's easy to imagine the economy and ease of digital video not only helping the film's tone but making the film possible), the zippy laughs and romance in Stillman's work have the speedy, hokey, agreeable air of an afternoon at the theater or the art house. With Gerwig's tenderly human yet hilarious performance, Stillman's welcome return plays like a spring treat of an Easter egg on screen, more bright than brittle and more happy than hollow.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.