Throughout the world of people old enough to remember the American indie filmmakers of the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was quiet rejoicing as word trickled out that Whit Stillman had made a new film after 14 years of obscurity. And happily for all of us, not to mention younger moviegoers in search of a new name, Damsels in Distress is well worth the wait.
The story of Stillman's absence and comeback was documented in a recent New York Times Magazine article—an appropriate news outlet, actually, because when his first film, Metropolitan, appeared to great acclaim in 1990, he was hailed as New York's WASP answer to Woody Allen.
Stillman was, and is, a bit of an oddball in today's popular culture. His films reflect a conservative New England sensibility, of private schools, good manners and unfashionable social and political opinions that are eloquently and amusingly argued. Indeed, one might say it's a sensibility that went out of fashion with the first George Bush. Just as Bush gave way to a more vulgar culture in which the coarse likes of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush would flourish, Stillman vanished after two well-regarded follow-ups, Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998).
Stillman's earlier films were backward-looking period pieces, but Damsels in Distress, which also uses nostalgia as one of its themes, is his first to be set in what appears to be the present. The action takes place at fictitious Seven Oaks College, which is intended to be a small but prestigious private school in the mold of Swarthmore or Hampshire (the film was shot in the community of Snug Harbor on Staten Island, which is now a destination on my next trip to New York). The florally themed foursome at the story's center—ringleader Violet (Greta Gerwig), Brit-snob Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), dopey Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and scruffy new girl Lily (Analeigh Tipton)—have as much in common with Jane Austen as they do with contemporary collegians.
But this is more than simply Clueless for a new generation. The charismatic Violet and her sidekicks run their school's suicide prevention center, counseling their depressed clients to take up tap dancing as therapy. Violet aspires to civilize the school's uncouth, drunken, subliterate male students, and her long-term ambition is to start a national dance craze (seriously). Meanwhile, she pursues a dating strategy that adheres to her calling to uplift lesser people: Her "boyfriend" Frank is a lovably idiotic frat boy. The actor who plays him, Ryan Metcalf, is a hoot, as are the film's many other fine performers: The funniest scene has Frank denying to a cooing female (Caitlin Fitzgerald) that he has blue eyes, before there's an even more ludicrous development concerning a frat brother called Thor (the dynamite Billy Magnussen). The ensemble talent is exceptional, and credit is due to Stillman for writing so many good lines for his characters, large and small.
Violet is laughably earnest, but even when others, including the editor of the campus newspaper, The Daily Complainer (a good example of Stillman's literary humor), attempt to embarrass her publicly, her single-minded conviction allows her to keep her dignity. But as with Austen's Emma (and Amy Heckerling's Cher), Violet's desire to improve and control the lives of others is a substitute for her own yearnings.
Just as Stillman cast The Last Days of Disco with that moment's hip New England girl of privilege, Chloë Sevigny, he's turned to her 2012 equivalent, Gerwig, in this film. Gerwig has been the sexy face of so-called mumblecore films since the appearance of Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends (both of which she co-wrote). But like Sevigny, her acting career has taken a turn toward higher profile films and prestigious filmmakers (her next film is Woody Allen's latest money-printing European postcard, To Rome with Love). Gerwig's off-kilter charisma is the key to making us believe in the fanciful creation that is Violet.
Like Allen, Stillman is a high-society filmmaker whose characters speak in complex, eloquent chunks of verbiage. And like Allen, he's not above dropping sight gags and one-liners for the sake of a guffaw. (Violet: "Have you ever heard the expression, 'Prevention is nine-tenths the cure?' Well, in the case of suicide, it's actually ten-tenths.") But with this film, we see an important difference: Allen's movie world is notorious for its lack of non-white people. Black characters are conspicuous throughout Damsels in Distress (including a student played by Jermaine Crawford, who I last saw shooting heroin as Dukie at the end of Season 5 of The Wire). Stillman's use of black actors, laudable in itself, also pre-empts a common misreading of his work as a fetishizing of rich Caucasians. Instead, his real concern is with sensibility and taste, of refinement in manner and intellect; the full name of his heroine, Violet Wister, suggests delicacy and nostalgic yearning. We may live in a fallen world, but the return of Whit Stillman to movie theaters gives us cause for hope.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Marvelous worlds."