@MovieJay is Charmed By the Delightful Damsels In Distress In His Review of Whit Stillman’s Latest

Writer/Director Whit Stillman and his ear for snappy dialogue are back after over a decade on hiatus.

This time his penchant for following the lives of trust-fund types centers on a campus clique at fictional Seven Oaks U. in a cinematic alternate reality that considers what college might have been like had the teens from “Pleasantville” been given a sequel. It’s an idyllic, picture-postcard campus apparently set in the present, but without modern luxuries like cell phones. The leader of the clique is Violet, a prissy-pants with a running id, that’s whip-smart and that tends to fly over the heads of surrounding characters, almost as if she’s her own audience. Violet is tall, blond, literate, and she knows better than you at everything. She’s realized in a pitch-perfect performance by Greta Gerwig that in another era might have been a Nicole Kidman role.

Violet’s personality quickly sets the tone of the story with her unique value system on life. As the self-appointed lead volunteer at the suicide-prevention center, potential suicide candidates are greeted with free doughnuts–but only if they’re determined to be clinically depressed by Violet and her crew of other botanically-named ladies, such as Rose.

On relationships, Violet is principled: Never go for someone smarter, better-looking or cooler than yourself; in fact, make sure they are inferior so you can shape them and give them confidence. The object of Violet’s affection is the doltish, immature Frank (Ryan Metcalf), clearly her inferior. In fact, everyone Violet surrounds herself with are people she finds lesser than herself. In her own way, she’s the kind of snob that doesn’t see herself as a snob, but simply as a good person doing you a favor when she recommends you use deodorant because she hates b.o.

Into the clique comes a new addition in Lily (Analeigh Tipton), wide-eyed and naive and like us, forever at the mercy of Violet’s rambling commentaries and social critiques. To this point the movie is at its best as Violet introduces Lily around and indoctrinates her into a supporting role as one of her proteges like the other girls, who always walk in a formation allowing for Violet to be the center of attention, naturally.

The screenplay crackles with perceptive observation and irony, and it helps that in the first half of the picture that the focus is more on characters and personalities than on some paint-by-numbers plot about either snobs vs. slobs or some variation of the worn-out “you have 6 weeks to take this guy/girl and turn them into the homecoming king/queen”. This movie is smarter than that to play by those rules and has more fun contemplating this wacky Ivy League-like school where most of its characters appear to have self-esteem in abundance coupled with a serious lack of self-awareness or smarts. It’s like a ‘yuppies-to-be’ set made up of kids that aren’t actually rich.

Where the movie suffers, I think, is in the last 30 minutes or so as different strands of the narrative that tweak our interest end up fizzling out. We meet Rick DeWolfe, who is the campus paper’s editor as well as an activist. He delivers a wonderful speech to supporters and the like, with Violet and her crew in attendance. There is real tension and chemistry between these two because Violet senses that Rick is at her level or perhaps beyond. But then the movie goes right back to ass-clown Frank and his stupid buddies. Frank is so dumb that he doesn’t know how to differentiate colors, though to his credit it’s because his parents made him skip kindergarten. But once we meet Rick, Frank comes off as a boring one-note character and Stillman makes the miscalculation of keeping him and Violet trapped in a dynamic that we ultimately decide is implausible. Just doesn’t seem like Violet would seriously waste that much time with a loser like Frank, but as one character states in the film, “There’s no logic to the algebra of love”.

Nonetheless, the movie works on the strength of Greta Gerwig’s captivating energy here and a screenplay that delivers wonderfully funny moments all throughout, even if Stillman has crafted more of a cinematic confection than an actual meal.

Stillman’s first flick was 1990’s “Metropolitan”, about a young man trying to hit it off with snobs like Violet, and his exploration into the lives of the well-to-do’s continued in “Barcelona” as well as in his best film, 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco“. “Damsels in Distress” is a good movie with engaging performances (particularly from its young women) that should find a niche audience among campus crowds and 30-somethings familiar with Stillman’s work. It should please movie lovers who appreciate its light comedy charms that come out of the era of Fred Astaire musicals, which this movie practically wants to break out into by the end with the Sambola, a new dance step invented by Violet that she insists on making the new craze on campus.

If “Pleasantville” is 4 stars and “Election” is 3.5, “Damsels in Distress” is a solid 3.