Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress

Prepare to revisit college life. However, this time you will see it from the perspective of those who always looked on you with prim disdain (and deservedly so, perhaps). A small clique of undergraduate women try to act as the arbiters of campus propriety, but they are frequently disregarded in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Violet Wister considers herself the queen bee of Seven Oaks University and her friends Heather and Rose agree with her. Transfer student Lily is quite taken with their fashion sense and the confidence they project. However, some of their activities take some getting used to. Though appalled by the low level of male hygiene on campus, they frequently socialize with, and even date, members of the rowdiest fraternity house. They also oversee a rather dubious suicide prevention line and blow off steam by tap-dancing.

In fact, Distress is almost, but not quite, a legitimate movie musical. Indeed, music and choreography plays an important role in the story, especially for Wister, who aspires to launch a dance craze. As in Last Days of Disco, Stillman again lionizes the shared experience of social dance. (However, Wister’s assertion that the Charleston was invented by a man named Charleston may rub stride piano fans the wrong way, denying the share of credit due to James P. Johnson.)

Stillman remains a keen observer of social dynamics, astutely capturing the vibe of cloistered life in a small eastern liberal art college. Yet, Distress’s comedy is broader and more scattershot than his previous films (all three of them). That is not necessarily a bad thing though, since it is often rather funny. Unfortunately, “It” girl Wister’s charm is somewhat obscure. Frankly, Greta Gerwig seems awkwardly miscast here. She appears to struggle a bit with the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, but at least she is not a bad hoofer.

In contrast, Megalyn Echikunwoke consistently gives the film a spark of energy as the hard to impress Rose. Her faux-British accent is a particularly clever touch. Analeigh Tipton is also realistically down-to-earth, yet still somewhat immature as the newly initiated Lily.

Though Distress conspicuously steers clear of campus political correctness controversies, Stillman takes an unambiguously jaundiced view of the reformist inclination, skewering Wister’s good intentions and ill-conceived follow-through. Indeed, there are a lot of witty and inspired things going on around her. A welcome return for the erudite Stillman, Distress suffers somewhat from a weak lead, but it still has enough to recommend it for the filmmaker’s fans and anyone who enjoys a verbally nimble film. It opens this Friday (4/6) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.