Whit Stillman has returned to feature filmmaking after a 14 year absence with his latest movie Damsels in Distress. The reaction from those who were able to see the film upon its early release has ranged from bemused nostalgic welcoming to callous rebuffs from those immune to the charms of Stillman’s affectionate observations of the "urban haute bourgeoisie", dubbed UHBs in his classic first film Metropolitan. Times have changed but, maybe thankfully, Stillman’s characters don’t seem to have astutely noticed.
In his latest Lily (Analeigh Tipton) finds herself, upon her transferring into a new college, recruited by a trio of young women who fashion themselves as campus crusaders. They are led by confident Violet (played with unreserved earnestness by Greta Gerwig) as they champion the benefits of good hygiene, suicide prevention and downwardly dating less intelligent young men (which never seemed a cause to me in need of championing…doesn’t this happen at an alarming pace already Mr. Stillman?). Most of their altruism takes place at their Suicide Prevention Center where their treatment involves donuts and dance lessons.
Damsels is a throwback movie. It evokes films even beyond the 90s when American Indie films like Stillman’s flourished seemingly defying conventional box office wisdom. Damsels benefits greatly from casting Gerwig who’s a success story of another movement of American Indies that defy market conventions (yes, she’s queen of the dreaded “mumblecore” movement). In a way, this marks a graduation of sorts for Gerwig while simultaneously she provides a bridge to long dormant Stillman back into the indie world.
I have to admit that I can see the flaws and feel the general audiences likely ignoring Damsels in Distress in the long run. However, I couldn’t help but bask in the simple joys of amusing dialogue and idiosyncratic characters attempting to discover their place in a world they already pretend to understand better than most.
While Damsels in Distress doesn’t measure up to his past work, it is a welcome presence to have in the theaters again.