I like to laugh. Hell, I love to laugh! Good comedies are what ground me as a human being and fortify my sense of self. I pride myself on my ability to tolerate what great irony the universe may bestow upon me, then analyze, accept, and dish it right back out. Perhaps I am still immune to great tragedy that transcends the boundary of “funny,” but I think humor is one of the healthier coping mechanisms, and I love nothing more than to revel in what topics other artists have managed to make comical.
I love certain comedies because they are timeless. Some are biting and clever. Others appeal to a very specific niche of my personality that I can’t help but project myself onto. Whit Stillman’s ambivalently received film Damsels in Distress (2011) seems to satisfy all three of those criteria.
I was lucky to discover Whit Stillman at that pivotal time in one’s life when a burgeoning sense of intellectualism coincides with lavish, impractical dreams. It’s the classic young adult arc of moving out of high school and seeing the world from a new angle, but not quite a realistic one. The director’s focus on the snide proceedings of the metropolitan upper class is not entirely original, but boy, does he own it. Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny’s icy banter in The Last Days of Disco (1998) rocked my world, and any scene with Chris Eigeman in that or Metropolitan (1990) had me rewinding and reciting. That Stillman overlapped with early Noah Baumbach was a match made in heaven, as I consider Kicking and Screaming (1995) an extension of Stillman’s highbrow world. Unfortunately, since Disco in 1998, Whitman has been relatively quiet.
When I realized that Damsels in Distress was part of his filmography, the first thing I noticed was how cheap it looked. The poster is bright red and its five principal characters are cheaply photoshopped. It was actually being marketed like its genre: a comedy. His other films have a droll facade to them that make them seem inaccessible, and most of the jokes are hidden behind the dry delivery of their actors. Such subtle jests are jarring in every possible way after watching a studio comedy, and, personally, I always liked that. Damsels just looked like a compromise of his good taste. So I put it on the back burner, opting to rewatch The Last Days of Disco instead.
Lo and behold, Barbie emerges. Greta Gerwig has made a billion dollars at the box office. “Yeah, and I liked her first,” I say to myself, consoling myself about how many times I watched Frances Ha (2012) before Lady Bird (2017) even came out. Obviously stupid, petty rhetoric. But the 10-digit statistic threw me into a frenzy to catch up with the deeper cuts of the Gretaverse. She is the star of this movie, along with Zach Woods, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Brody (a contemporary Chris Eigeman if I’ve ever seen one) and Billy Magnussen… comedians I love. Wait, why didn’t I watch this the first time around?
Reader, I judged a book by its cover. And I’m so sorry to say it. Because, even when you get past the poster, the movie does look cheap (a $3 million budget confirms suspicions). The aesthetic is all over the place and the camera movements are awkward. Many of the extras look like they’ve never been on a movie set before and – to make matters worse – the thing was shot on Staten Island.
But I assure you: this movie is hilarious. After several paragraphs of pleading, I am again asking you to hear me out. Stillman wouldn’t leave his audience hanging like this if he didn’t have enough faith in the script. And the script is more than enough.
Greta Gerwig plays Violet (née Emily Tweeter), a student at a small liberal arts university and the leader of a friend group that seeks to help people – mainly men – better themselves. Her trio works out of the school’s suicide center and provides treatment (read: the power of dance) to those afflicted by personal crises. In this way, some could say the movie was ahead of its time: the prevalence of mental health on the young person’s agenda today makes an easy in for audiences today to appreciate the film’s well-meaning satire.
It’s not totally clear what year the film is supposed to take place; Violet and her girls dress like it’s the ‘50s, while new recruit Lily prefers skinny jeans and long cardigans. This apparel choice is not a romanticization of the past (or its gender roles, as we have come to associate the style with today), but a demonstration of what Violet sees as a put-together appearance. Furthermore, cell phones are a non-factor, as per Whitman’s preference to not include technological conflict in his social scenarios. The frat boys Violet and company wish to support are dumb – so, incredibly dumb – but ultimately non-threatening.
Thus opens up a universe of girls supporting girls, boys (mostly) meaning well, and everyone attempting to develop their unique sense of self. It’s an accepting and positive environment, juxtaposed by its consideration of suicide, Cathar intimacy, and characters with names like “Thor” and “Priss” (not to mention “Mad Madge,” “Depressed Debbie,” and “Positive Polly”). It doesn’t feel even, but that blatant lack of balance was the origin of the majority of my guffaws during the movie.
It also rang rather true to me as I considered the day-by-day basis of mental healthiness. In one scene, as Violet’s dim-witted friend Heather shares the rollercoaster of emotions experienced by her boyfriend (Thor) as he made sense of colors for the first time in his life, Violet sincerely comments, “When you have problems yourself, it’s great to hear someone else’s truly idiotic ones.” Heather stands up for herself, and Violet then apologizes for her insensitive comment.
Earlier, when new girl Lily criticizes Violet for being conceited in her attempts to help others, Violet agrees and thanks her for her “chastisement.” She appreciates having a friend who will challenge her. Every person in the movie is like that. Seeing characters so open to feedback along their journey of growth is remarkably refreshing, and rings strongly of Gerwig’s current quest in the cinematic medium. Although the script was Stillman’s alone, it makes sense why she was drawn to play such an introspective character – even before Frances Ha became the blueprint for such.
In contrast, I would not define this movie as mumblecore. The majority of the lines are exacting with their cultivated language, replacing expletives like “ass” with “posterior.” In this sense, they are able to get away with a lot of dirty jokes, even with its PG-13 rating. Never have I ever seen anal sex alluded to so many times without ever spilling over into vulgarity. It’s an impressive exercise in restraint and trusting the audience, which is one of my favorite qualities of Stillman's work. He hops from one joke about a man discovering the color green to another about the pitfalls of a popular suicide spot with devastating grace.
But that brings me back to Violet’s comment to Heather: idiotic problems vs. so-called “real” ones. How does one portray them as coexisting? It’s one of the main conflicts you’ll see in any work. In the movies, one feels pressure to pick a tonal side: life is serious, or life is light. Great dramas make use of both (Little Miss Sunshine  being my personal model), but comedies, too, face the pressure of devoting themselves to one extreme. I appreciate filmmakers who recognize that life is often a mix. There are always perspective constraints due to the camera's lens, but Stillman nonetheless makes clear that each of the characters is living in different realities, converging onto one another by pure coincidence. The comedic continuity, if there is any, is related to the educational privileges afforded by their social class. Whit's wit is still very much intact.
Damsels in Distress ends with a musical-style tap performance in a fountain, and then the credits roll over an original dance number known as the Sambola! – a new dance craze, and Violet’s main project over the course of the film. Not all the loose ends are tied up, relationship-wise, and no, the gang did not “solve” depression. But they improved the hygiene of some “doofi” and settled some of their old scores. The mess does not entirely go away, but Violet is able to overcome her breakup-related mental block, which is really what the dance symbolizes.
As a precursor to Frances Ha, Damsels appears like a tip of the hat from Stillman to Baumbach to take over in this thematic area (read: Gerwig, friendship trouble, the love of dance). Stillman released Love and Friendship in 2016, a well-received if underappreciated Jane Austen adaptation, and is set to release a romantic, European political drama TV series next year. At 71 years old, however, it’s not seeming like Stillman is likely to return to his small-scale social satires.
Luckily, if you are one of those people who skipped Damsels while exploring the director’s work, you may now find yourselves with an unearthed gem. It's almost as good as it being new.
Damsels in Distress is streaming on Hulu.