14 years after ‘Disco,’ Whit Stillman goes back to college to save ‘Damsels’


BIG GIRL ON CAMPUS | Lily, Violet and Heather parse the travails of college life in the sophisticated comedy ‘Damsels in Distress.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Oh, the problems of the one-percenters, especially the pretty, college-aged ones. They volunteer for suicide hotlines, and can’t understand why anyone — depressed or not — wouldn’t follow their advice. They probably shouldn’t be giving advice in the first place, but that’s beside the point: They always know best. Just ask Mitt Romney. (Better, ask the Romney’s Irish setter.)

The sly trick of a Whit Stillman film, though, is that characters are rarely what they seem. Even the apparently overprivileged few turn out to be on the distaff side of family money, if any (what John Guare called “Hand to mouth, just on a higher level”); and while they may enjoy comparative luxuries, they are still just as fragile as the rest of us.

That’s been the case with every Stillman movie for 20 years, and it’s true in Damsels in Distress, his return to filmmaking after a too-long absence. Stillman is 60 now, but his fascination with 20somethings hasn’t changed much in the past few decades. He still writes persuasively about the travails of romance as seen from the hyper-rationalization of the over-educated. You can’t always think your way out of a problem in a Stillman movie, no matter how hard you try; you can’t in life, either.

It has almost become a formula for Stillman: His characters, even the seemingly dumb ones, often engage in what we might now call Twitterspeak — saying aloud things most people keep to themselves (though they usually do so in a sophisticated patter that instantly identifies itself as Stillmanesque). It’s a style mimicked entertainingly on the series Gilmore Girls: Fast-paced and fun, but with heart.

In Damsels, a quartet of flower-named co-eds — newcomer Heather (Carrie MacLemore), queen bee Violet (Greta Gerwig), and followers Rose and Lily — negotiate semester-long bed-hopping and their own delicate egos while trying not to crack under the pressures of impending adulthood. That means pretending not to care when dumped by a boy, or announcing a plan to start a dance craze and assuming everyone will get onboard. It doesn’t always go so easy.

Damsels doesn’t represent a sea-change in Stillman’s oeuvres, merely a continuation in it — and that’s fine with me. His voice is distinctive, an engaging blend of sophistication and absurdism. (It’s Clueless with references to film noir and the Romantic poets.) But it’s not self-congratulatory, parading its smarts over its audience — it really just wants to be funny.

And funny it is in a way as dry as a James Bond martini. Gerwig echoes another Stillman actress — Chloe Sevigny from Last Days of Disco — with her button-down propriety masking emotional fragility. She’s as charm and as quirky as the film itself.

Stillman’s movies have often been compared to Woody Allen’s, and while that’s fair, it also underestimates the individuality of his work. So individual, in fact, Damsels feels slightly insular. If you’re not already a fan, it may not woo you over.

But for those of us who have waited more than a decade to delight in cleverness with an academician’s sensibility, well … Whit’s still the man.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 20, 2012.