I started to resent precocious college kids about eight months after I earned my bachelor's degree — in other words, once I no longer qualified as one. Now I think they're adorable. But I never resented them half as much as the movies do. Think of any recent comedy — who's dumber than a college kid? What's worse is that no one seems interested in taking them seriously, at least not until writer-producer-director Whit Stillman came along. Stillman has crafted a film that rescues and even dignifies this oft-abused subgroup; his sun-kissed campus comedy Damsels in Distress is one of the very best films of the year.
Because each discrete scene in Damsels in Distress is packed with ideas and jokes, its loose, episodic plot — orientation, romance, breakup, rainbow, Sambola! — hardly registers. What matters is the near-constant stream of sparkling conversation trickling through and around each scene. For Stillman's characters, especially his coed "damsels" — Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore, my favorite), and transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) — words never stop flowing out just like the Grand Canyon.
And it's fun to hear them talk — especially Violet. Gerwig's thoughtful, sensitive portrait of Violet simultaneously emphasizes her indestructible sense of misguided altruism and her capacity for growth and change. She's irresistible — so certain of herself, yet so misguided. She's Everygirl. Violet praises clichés as stores of human wisdom, says things like "I adore optimism even when it's completely absurd — perhaps especially then," and asks people, "Shouldn't a nickname simplify the name it's replacing?"
Stillman's got plenty more words where those came from. Since his 1990 debut Metropolitan, he's concocted some of the headiest banter since Preston Sturges fell in love with his own brand of goofball strivers, inventors, and eccentrics so completely that he let them yammer themselves into film history. Stillman's penchant for intricate, crossed-t and dotted-i dialogue results in a uniquely generous and tolerant kind of comedy. Even the dolts stand up for what they believe in, notably during an early scene when a frat boy named Thor defends his "precocity addict" parents for skipping him so far ahead in schools that he doesn't even know the color spectrum.
Seven Oaks, the mythical college where the film's events transpire, is the perfect incubator for these kids. It's also one of the film's more obviously fanciful concoctions. It's wonderful that Stillman's highly idiosyncratic version of college life is as inclusive and surprising as his characters' chatter. Where else but college would someone's desire to start an international dance craze and "elevate the human spirit" be taken seriously? Where else would Roman numeral (not Greek numeral) clubs be both feared and pitied for the "morons" they house?
One memorable recurring image in Damsels in Distress shows the damsels strolling along after class. It humbly offers an idyllic version of education, self-discovery, the first day of the rest of your life — a slow walk along a well-worn path that takes you into and out of the light.
Damsels in Distress
Opening Friday, May 18th