‘Damsels in Distress’ is a welcome return of the terrific Whit Stillman

Megalyn Echikunwoke, Greta Gerwig and Carrie MacLemore in 'Damsels in Distress'
Megalyn Echikunwoke, Greta Gerwig and Carrie MacLemore in ‘Damsels in Distress’

From this point forward, it should be known as the “Deafening Silence.”

I’m referring to the 13 year absence of the talents of writer/director/producer Whit Stillman from the big screen.  We have not seen nor heard nothing from him since The Last Days of Disco danced off into the sunset in 1998.  Now he’s back and in a big way with Damsels in Distress, a look at an unique gaggle of female students at a university that is now co-ed.

Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is the new girl on campus, a sophomore transfer student at “Seven Oaks” (clearly a reference to the famed Seven Sisters Universities in the NorthEastern U.S.) and she runs into Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwode) in her first moments on campus.  They look at her and decide instantly that she will be their next project in attempting to improve the lives of those around them.

These girls room together, share wardrobe, perfume and thoughts on life with one another, run the university’s suicide prevention center, and attempt to date the men below them.  That’s because such men present the challenge of bringing out their potential, rather than the vapidness to be found in men who are “cookie-cutter” handsome with chiseled features.

Naturally, Lily’s housing assignment has been fouled up by the school, so she is invited to move in with the trio, who magically have a space available for her.  Soon they are inculcating her into their unique views on life.

Greta Gerwig stars in 'Damsels in Distress'
Greta Gerwig stars in ‘Damsels in Distress’

Violet is quick to point out the arrogance in others, but when Lily points out that Violet is herself quite arrogant and therefore guilty of hypocrisy, Violet gently accepts the criticism.  But one is left to wonder if she really had grasped this flaw in herself before, or if she was always aware and didn’t care.

Violet is enamored of Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a member of one of the Roman Letter societies on campus.  Yes, I said Roman Letter societies.  There is no Greek community at Seven Oaks and never has been.  Instead it is replaced by the Roman Letter societies, which have all of the bad and apparently little of the good of traditional fraternities.  Frank will ultimately hurt Violet and send her on a journey of self-discovery that sadly discovers little except the fragrant quality of cheap motel soap and the realization that launching a dance craze is not nearly as world-changing as she had imagined.

Then there is Xavier (Hugo Becker), a grad student that Lily met over the summer.  He’s got a French accent and a “hipper than you” mentality to match.  He’s got a girlfriend, but her jealousy of his interest in Lily quickly end that arrangement and bring Lily and Xavier together.  The question becomes will their relationship survive his unusual choice of religious faith.

Don’t forget Charlie.  He appears to be someone else at first, but like much of Stillman’s characters in Damsels, this is just another facade.  He is what Rose refers to as a “player and operator type”, although there is earnestness in his soul.  Both Violet and Lily find themselves attracted to him.

Damsels in Distress is aptly titled, for the girls are definitely distressed and Stillman uses absolutely hilarious dialogue and story settings to tell their tales.  Depressed education majors leaping from a campus building to avoid the horror of it all, except they’re jumping from a structure only two stories in height, not nearly far enough for the fall to be fatal.

There’s dancing, dallying and discovery of the ability to learn by Troy, one of the brothers of a Roman Letter group who doesn’t know the colors of the spectrum.  Not even the primary three.  But he is willing, and possibly able to learn them.  The girls set out to aid these doofuses (or doofi if you prefer, they actually debate the correct usage of the term) and as a result aid themselves.

A witty and wonderfuly welcome return from the man who gave us the gem of Metropolitan.

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