'Damsels': A Daffy, Earnest Return For Whit Stillman
Director Whit Stillman is 60 now, and hasn't made a film since 1998's The Last Days of Disco, but his preferred milieu is still the world of privileged young people with the luxury of taking time to figure themselves out. It's a rarefied realm, where vocabulary and self-confidence outstrip experience, and wisdom and adulthood are still to be embraced.
Even were it not so delightful, Damsels in Distress, set at a fictional upper-crust college, would deserve a watch for its dialogue alone. Unlike in most American youth-oriented movies, his characters read, and are proud of it. They've thought about life and drawn some early, if occasionally flawed, conclusions. Quotes from the classics seep into everyday conversations, and current pop-culture references are noticeably absent. No one texts or tweets or lingers on Facebook. No one ponders the plotlines of must-see TV.
Instead, the film's daffy damsels are on a mission to improve the lives of everyone around them. Turning the familiar campus comedy on its ear, Stillman rearranges the pecking order so that frat boys are objects of sympathy and the weirdest girls are so unharassed, they believe themselves queen bees.
At the center of the hive is Violet (the marvelous Greta Gerwig), a philanthropic activist whose greatest dream is to invent the next dance craze. Along with roommates Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Violet runs a suicide-prevention center where she encourages depressed coeds to aim lower in the search for a mate. Because, you know, cool people are overrated, and so much work.
This has always been a theme in Stillman's work, and it's comforting to see he hasn't changed. Following her own advice, Violet dates Frank (a quite astonishing debut from Ryan Metcalf), a lovable dunderhead so dim he can't describe his own eye color. The absurdism of much of the film's humor — one unfortunate lunk (Billy Magnussen) can't identify any colors at all because he skipped kindergarten — may seem unbearably precious when described, but in the hands of the gifted young cast, it all works.
Analeigh Tipton, playing a transfer student co-opted by Violet's group, responds to her new friends' eccentricities with understated dismay, while Adam Brody, as one of her love interests, reveals depths unplumbed when he was a pup on Gilmore Girls and The O.C.
Though the screenplay's whimsy may be too rich for some, Stillman's writing has a singular intelligence that has become an increasingly rare pleasure in the movie theater. As Violet, deluded but never despicable, begins a campaign to banish frat-boy odor from campus, Stillman paves her path with musical numbers — including a lovely sequence set to Hal Ketchum's country-roots ballad Small Town Saturday Night — and arch conversations.
Loony and erudite, blithe and well-meaning, Damsels is a skewed fairy tale whose message, if there is one, is that we can all benefit from a helping hand. Even if we don't know the color of our own eyes. (Recommended) Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
More on Movies
Noise Pop | May 24, 2013
Listen to the newest Noise Pop picks for you and your partner's listening pleasure, featuring Liars, Future Islands, Beach House, Jessie Ware, and The Weeknd. Note: this episode contains adult language and situations.
NPR Film | May 24, 2013
The indie darling returns in a winning collaboration with Noah Baumbach that tracks her developmentally arrested dancer heroine through the transition from protracted adolescence to reluctant adulthood. (Recommended) By Ella Taylor
NPR Film | May 24, 2013
Fast 6 pits Dominic's crew against a wily terrorist in a high-tech battle royale -- but it has a devil of a time explaining why everyone should hop into their cars. By Scott Tobias
The Do List | May 23, 2013
Suzie Racho and David Wiegand scout the Bay Area for things to do this coming weekend and turn up Puerto Rican flavor, a pair of poets, and much more!
Art Review | May 23, 2013
CCA's 2013 MFA show brings 75 artists together in a massive show of works spanning the range from delicate gestures to post-apocalyptic installations. By Mark Taylor
The Truffaut borrowings are explicit in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, while Richard Linklater's Before Midnight takes its cues from Eric Rohmer's gentle but expansive talkfests. In both films, conversation is a centerpiece as characters navigate relationships.
David Greene talks to filmmaker Alex Gibney about the new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. In 2006, Julian Assange launched WikiLeaks and encouraged anyone in the world to pass on information that might expose government secrets.
Fast & Furious 6 pits Dominic's crew against a wily terrorist in a high-tech battle royale — but it has a devil of a time explaining why everyone should hop into their cars.
An affectionate documentary portrays the Paris Review founder as a man devoted to illuminating how talent and creativity work — both for himself, and for the rest of us.
Also on KQED.org this week ...
We Need You!
Volunteer during our current on-air radio fundraising drive. It's a great way to support KQED Radio with your time. You can really make a difference!
Enter the New "ImageMakers" Screening Room
Enjoy films from present and past seasons of KQED's short independent film series, divided into Animation, Comedy, Drama, and Suspense.