Film Review: Damsels in DistressDroll, sophisticated take on the dopey college-comedy genre, Whit Stillman’s latest delivers the goods to the now more grown-up fans of his indie splash, <i>Metropolitan</i>. Whiffs of Astaire, Lubitsch and Hart/Kaufman or Hecht/MacArthur permeat
Filmmaker Whit Stillman, who took a long break after his 1998 The Last Days of Disco to work overseas, finally re-emerges with the fun and loopy college-themed spoof, Damsels in Distress. Set in comfortable Stillman territory that imagines a mash-up of light Ivy League gone slightly retro and co-ed with Bard/Reed progressivism, his reinvention should delight boomers bearing degrees. Even younger generations of savvy filmgoers will drink the cool Kool-Aid flowing in these lush groves of an amusingly reconceived but oft-familiar academe.
The story of student angst, fun and ruminations unfolds at the bucolic East Coast college of Seven Oaks, where co-education has not quite stamped out male boorishness. Evidence of this emerges from the machismo on display at annual Roman club rituals like the loud, costumed parade of hooting frat boys, their frequent transgressions and one male student’s promotion of sodomy that he preaches in near-religious terms.
Heading a team of female coeds eager to stamp out misbehavior and all threats to decency is gung-ho leader Violet (a wry and priceless Greta Gerwig), who waxes coolly but hilariously on the prickly matters at hand. Her loyal followers include the somewhat prissy Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who comes equipped with what may be a bogus British accent, and the more available Heather (Carrie MacLemore), who goes ape over ape-like Thor (Billy Magnussen), a name that says it all.
This determined and dedicated trio invite lost newcomer transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into their clique and their current mission running the campus suicide-prevention center, a haven of therapy activities (dancing especially) for depressed, grungy losers. It’s Lily who contends with seductive Euro flotsam and jet-set Xavier (Hugo Becker), the eloquent sodomy exponent.
As these Shavian-like female missionaries fight the good fight, romantic attractions distract. Besides Xavier, there is slick Charlie (Adam Brody), the bar habitué who loves buying female strangers drinks and suggesting he’s some kind of business success in strategic development (actually, he’s just another student), and frat guy and dim fellow Frank (Ryan Metcalf), whose opinions and observations are as inane as mixed nuts but somehow charm Violet. Also in the women’s crosshairs is campus power-wielder Rick (Zach Woods), editor of the college paper and the epitome of cynicism and self-importance in journalism.
Classes, studying, cell-phones, computers and tablets at Seven Oaks are unseen. But not dance crazes, like Greta’s long lusted-for Sambola invention, and a musical production number that tips its top hat to Astaire and MGM.
A spoof of college attitudes that reverberates slightly retro, Damsels is Stillman “whit-ty” and will delight his fans. Filmed on Staten Island locations that perfectly evoke the atmosphere of a leafy, mildly elitist campus, the movie benefits from clever writing, perfect casting and savvy performances that relocate it 180 degrees away from college-kid comedies like American Pie or Animal House. It’s up to audiences to answer whether rarified can replace raunch when it comes to cinematic campus tours.