Let me be completely upfront about this—I absolutely loved Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, but I know nothing about the three films in his rather sparse filmography that came before it. (Now, I’m determined to catch up with them.) As a result, I can’t put this fim into a context that will mean anything to Stillman’s admirers. From my perspective, Damsels in Distress seems to inhabit a world not unlike the ones found in the films of Wes Anderson and Rian Johnson. (It most resembles Rushmore, but don’t take that comparison too far.) That’s to say it takes place in a present that has more in common with the past, and seems to have been made by someone who is more comfortable with an earlier time—though not in a deliberate or especially reactionary manner. There’s a sense of yearning for a more glamorous, better spoken and more genteel time (or an imagined one) in a social sense, but it’s one that skirts the generally nauseating “good old days” syndrome by simply finding that world within the one they—and we—inhabit.
In the case of Damsels in Distress, the created world is Seven Oaks University, which has all the earmarks of being one of those expensive schools for not very bright people. At the very least, most of the students we meet are either dim or on the deluded side. And the little we see of the faculty (very little, in fact) doesn’t make them seem much better. The film’s main focus are the distressed damsels of the title—Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and their newest addition, Lily (Analeigh Tipton). The cause of their distress (at least according to the main titles) are the males at the school, who they—or, more correctly, their ringleader Violet—have set out to reform. Lily serves the function of being the character we can most relate to, because she’s as baffled by what she encounters as the viewer is apt to be. That, however, only goes so far, since she turns out to be no less peculiar than the others—just not in quite the same ways. In that regard, Stillman seems to suggest that perhaps we’re not that much different ourselves.
Violet is out to change the world—starting with the school. Her ultimate ambition is to make her mark by creating an international dance craze as big as the waltz, the Charleston or the twist. In the meantime, she settles for operating—with her posse, of course—the school’s suicide prevention center (free doughnuts for the suicidally depressed), making the world a better-smelling place by increasing the male hygiene of the school, and by dating guys dumber than herself. The idea of that last is to try to elevate her charges. Truth to tell, there’s more than a little evidence that the young men could stand some elevation, but whether Violet is likely to supply it is a separate question. What makes this work is that Violet’s approaches and ideas are presented as absurd, and she is most certainly absurd, but her motives are good and Stillman never makes sport of those—or, when all is said and done, of anyone’s motives.
Some will complain that the film has no story, and in the traditional sense that’s true. Essentially, we just spend 90 minutes with these slightly preposterous characters, but there’s a lot to savor along the way. The dialogue is invariably clever—and more often than not has more to say than it might at first seem. The characters are rich and ultimately pretty complex. And the ending—or the untraditional wrap-up that serves as one—is a joy to behold. The film’s great strength lies in the very fact that it’s not going to please everyone, and has no interest in doing so. This is clearly the movie that Stillman wanted to make, and these days that’s pretty rare. That it’s also such a good-hearted, delightfully quirky film with an intelligent vibe is even rarer. That the film is so cleverly civilized that it can discuss a crackpot religion where anal sex is the only form of nonprocreative intercourse allowed, and yet still retain its PG-13 rating … well, that’s probably unique. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content including some sexual material.