Damsels in Distress, written and directed by Whit Stillman, 99 minutes
I am always initially disappointed in Whit Stillman's films. I expect self-recognition because he's writing about people and situations I know, at least on a superficial level. But the characters in his films, in particular, the way they talk to each other, are very different from anyone I've ever met.
I made the same mistake with "Damsels in Distress." Here are girls at a New England college in the early stages of co-education, a situation I had experienced first hand. Speak to me, Whit. Show me the world I know.
Instead, I was confronted with the very odd Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her little posse. It was in some time past, but they communicate by email and cell phone so it was hard to know when it was supposed to be. Violet, a somewhat shapeless, plain blond, has the arrogant self-assurance of a missionary, but is soon revealed as very damaged. Plus she dresses and speaks in a way that is totally foreign, closer to drawing-room comedy of the 20's and 30's than college students of the 60's and 70's.
She and her friends run a Suicide Prevention Center, but no one else is really sure why. They take in a stray transfer student named Lily (Analeigh Tipton, recently launched on "America's Top Model") who soon challenges her supremacy and asks the kind of direct, real questions that are at least recognizable as normal conversation.
At some point in the movie, not exactly sure when, I began to get over myself. Stillman isn't writing about your experiences - so what! I'm not sure he is writing about anyone's experience, and I am very sure that doesn't matter. He creates these strange little worlds, that have some tangential ties to an East Coast preppy world that is really just a point of departure for him. The speech is strange and overly introspective, but it gives Stillman the advantage of revealing exactly what the characters are thinking. It's a strange world, refracted through his idiosyncratic lens.
Once you accept this alternate universe, it's much easier to enjoy. The girls think the boys in the fraternities ("Roman letter societies") are morons, and they are right. One guy doesn't know his colors because his pushy parents made him skip first grade. Violet becomes depressed after she discovers her boyfriend making out with a girl she has helped at the Suicide Prevention Center. Only she prefers to say she is "in a tailspin" and goes AWOL until she discovers the therapy of the scent of the soap at a nearby motel. She also advocates tap dance therapy and hopes to launch an international dance craze. Her heroes are Strauss, Chubby Checker and someone she identifies as "Frederick Charleston," who she insists, incorrectly, invented the dance.
The other girls also have their own distress. Lily is taken in by Xavier (Hugo Becker, Blair's prince from "Gossip Girl") from the south of France who claims to be part of the "Curlin" religion which only has "non-procreative sex from the back." Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) dismisses all men as "seducers and playboys." Heather (Carrie MacLemore) is sweet but not very smart and dedicates herself to the boy learning his colors.
Even the erudite Stillman can't avoid a nod to the greatest college movie of all, "Animal House," when the jock dorm attacks the Romans in their togas, but he wisely doesn't dwell on this. "Damsels" is very much a movie from a female point of view, and he doesn't waste time on the boys who really are idiots, not lovable, bright rascals like the guys in "Animal House."
The dance therapy eventually leads "Freak Astaire" and the rest of the cast to tap their way across the campus in a fanciful dance number, followed shortly by the finale where Violet introduces the "Sambola, with step-by-step, on-screen instruction and predictions of instant international fame.
Stillman takes a lot of chances with this film. He starts with a small world, then fragments it beyond recognition, but what he creates is something wry, charming and hopeful in its innocence. If you let yourself, you will succumb like I did.