New at Seven Oaks College, Lily (Tipton) comes under the influence of a do-gooding clique, led by Violet (Gerwig), determined to raise spirits and standards especially in body odour among the frat boy-dominated student populace. Various group disagree
Forget James Cameron; few directors can create their own universe like Whit Stillman. In films such as Barcelona, Metropolitan and The Last Days Of Disco, his world is populated with preppie, articulate characters obsessed with modern etiquette, dating mores and social correctness. Damsels, his first film for 13 years, fits into Stillman’s stable but has a freshness and sweetness new to his work.
This is Stillman’s campus comedy, a deliciously skewed take on prim girl cliques and frat boy antics. Wafting through a New England university, our damsels — leader Violet (Greta Gerwig), newbie Lily (Analeigh Tipton), wannabe Brit Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and dim bulb Heather (Carrie MacLemore) — are on a crusade to promote hygiene and prevent student suicides via free doughnuts, bad advice (date people uglier than you) and tap-dancing for the authentically depressed. The girls are chirpy, the boys mostly dunderheads (save Adam Brody’s Fred, who is writing a “history of the decline of decadence”), and the film pulls off the tricksy challenge of detailing the bland without being remotely bland itself. This is down to Stillman’s tone, spiky and sweet, affectionate and satiric, flitting from the highbrow to the risqué (a running gag about anal sex) to the plain daft (cinema’s most useless suicide attempt) aided by a cast perfectly attuned to his deft drollery.
The movie begins with transfer student Lily (Tipton on appealing form) joining the group as a kind of audience surrogate, but once Stillman acclimatises us, he shifts his attention to Violet and this becomes Gerwig’s show. The best head girl since Election’s Tracy Flick, Gerwig makes Violet irritating and irresistible in equal measures as she debates the plural of doofus (doofi?) or tries to make her mark on world history with a new dance craze, the Sambola (instructions are included in the end credits).
Taking his cue from Violet’s ambition, Stillman has the gall to end his movie with a full-on dance number (modelled on Fred Astaire’s A Damsel In Distress) that is fanciful yet entirely appropriate. “The past is gone so we might as well romanticise it,” says Fred at one point, and for all its sophistication, Damsels plays with a civility and innocence (not to mention dress sense) that is squarely ’50s. This mixture of the detached and the genial — Heathers by way of Cath Kidston — makes Stillman’s flick such a joy.
Gilded by a giddy Greta Gerwig, Damsels In Distress is a sharp, daffy, eccentric delight. Stillman may be an acquired taste, but no-one else is making films like this. Cherish it.