Reporting Eric Henderson
There’s a joke early on in Whit Stillman’s engaging new comedy Damsels in Distress in which Greta Gerwig’s playfully snooty but ultimately stingless queen bee Violet arrives at a frat party.
The jocks are all getting drunk to the strains of Real McCoy’s thumping ’90s house anthem “Another Night,” and Violet gushes, “Oh, a golden oldie!”
The joke works on a number of levels (the most depressing level being that I was a teenager when the song came out), but perhaps the most amusing is the notion that the song was still a fresh newie when Stillman’s next most recent movie — 1998′s The Last Days of Disco — was released in theaters.
When I pointed that out to Stillman a few weeks ago upon his visit to the Twin Cities to do press for the movie, he laughed and admitted that the meta-critique wasn’t intentional. He actually wanted the joke to be a little more pronounced than how it comes off in the film (i.e. the folly of youth, presuming anything that predates their adolescence is ancient). Instead of “Another Night,” Stillman said he was hoping to use a much more recent hit, but the cost was too prohibitive.
However, the fact remains, it’s been a long 14 years since Stillman has been out there with a new movie, explaining the jokes to slow journalists such as myself.
Stillman said it wasn’t his intention to spend the entirety of the aughts absent from the silver screen and, to the contrary, has indicated that he’s a little embarrassed about the practically Kubrickian fugue between films.
It wasn’t as though he’d run out of topics to discuss, as became quickly apparent during our conversation. Stillman can flit from topic to topic with total ease.
“I’ve gotten into the European habit of having the unbuttoned shirt,” he said right off. “There, ties are very unfashionable.”
Not an interjection likely to sway some of the writer-director’s critics, who attack his fixation on upper class twittery, but one which falls completely in line with the worldview of Violet and her band of anti-Mean Girls, which includes the prim but cute Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and the relentless Anglophile Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke).
Violet’s default mode is one of efficacy and charity. Though basically naïve to her own presumptuousness, Violet has taken it upon herself to bequeath her worldly wisdom upon the not-quite-Ivy League college Seven Oaks’s churlish male demographic, and to influence the school’s females in a character-building effort.
In the case of the females, her assistance comes in the form of taking green freshman Lily (Minnesota native Analeigh Tipton) under her wing, running a suicide prevention center that mostly involves feeding clients donuts, trying to alleviate her peers’ depression through tap dance routines, and taking a very vested interest in the romantic misadventures of her little flock.
For the men, she devises a plan to trick them into using soap.
Damsels in Distress skirts the fine line between droll and twee, a dreaded word I noted made even Stillman suppress a shudder. (By way of example, Stillman noted to me, regarding the albatross of “twee,” that he went back and forth on Amelie, likening it to a sweet, ripe peach that someone simply held too hard. Eventually, though, he came to love the movie.)
The difference between droll and twee can be found in the difference between characters that think they know more than anyone else, and characters that know they know more than everyone else.
Gerwig’s Violet is no Max Fischer. She’s a genuine oddball with good intentions she is occasionally aware she can’t fulfill. Gerwig’s light performance — and, for that matter, the work of Damsels‘ entire company of fresh, clean, un-ironic youths — receives the fullest support of Stillman’s fruit-flavored dialogue. Blurbs compare the movie to prime Woody Allen, but Allen’s characters are usually stymied by their intellectual acuity. Here, Violet and company’s chatter is helped along by the fact that they sometimes don’t know what they’re talking about.
Not that Stillman knows what that feels like, of course. After all, this is a writer who fully admits that he simply has his characters say what he things and, more often than not, it gets a laugh.
Which, in Damsels in Distress, happens often enough.