Whit Stilman’s Damsels In Distress Is a College Movie For Old People

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Whit Stillman does not understand the intricacies of college in the year 2012. But no one really expects him to. The director of Metropolitan and Barcelona has never been a master of realism. But in Damsels In Distress, he has created a college experience idealized to the point that only an old person could love it.*

The film is set in a North Eastern liberal arts college filled with students on the brink of suicide. That aspect could be the closest plot point to reality. I went to Columbia and I can attest that when I was there around the year 2000, every college in the North Eastern corridor was busily trying to block up the edge of any lofty spaces because students were depressingly pitching themselves from the tops of stairwells, roofs and library stacks.

And there is definitely a lot to depressed about in the current college experience. Binge drinking, hookup culture and stress induced depression are just a few of the things that parents worry about when sending their kids off to college. But it's the unconventional way that Stilman's characters fight back that presents the kind of idyl that will delight older Stilman fans and confuse current college kids.

The plot of Damsels revolves around coed Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her team of distressed damsels literally trying to wash the masses.

They volunteer at the campus suicide prevention center and fight thoughts of depression with tap dancing and bars of soap. At one point, they actually deliver mass quantities of neatly packaged soap to a dorm of smelly miscreants in the hopes of fighting their depressive stupors.

At the screening I attended, these bars of soap were distributed:

The idea of sweet smelling soap lifting college kids out of their malaise is a strange film premise. That's not to say that there aren't kids out there who are fighting against the habits of the unwashed masses who populate college dorms today. But few would suppose that the inclination towards hook up culture and mistrust of authority could be reversed through better hygiene.

It's nice to dream, though isn't it?

And that's how some older viewers will respond to this film. Witness how The New York Times‘ review begins:

“This, friends, is news: a movie populated by young people who do not mumble, swear, punctuate their utterances with “like” or think that an incredulous “really?” represents the apogee of wit. Even if it did not have other charms, this peculiar, uneven campus comedy would be worth seeing for the delightful felicity of its dialogue.”

And here is how Jennifer Wright, the editor of our sister site The Gloss, describes her adulation for the film:

“There’s also a scene where they all dance on water. Just like they’re in 1952.

Oh God, I loved it so much.”

Jennifer may still be in her 20s, but she freely admits that she would be happily whisked away to Whit Stilman's world of Damsels, which she refers to as ” a delicately rendered utopia. And it is so nice to go and spend two hours there.”

Other young viewers are not likely to have such a positive response. Damsels lacks the edge of movies like Mean Girls, Clueless and Bring It On — movies about young women that successfully drew in young female fans.

This is a world where the college kids opine on religious theories and seek to save those around them from destruction. Which makes Damsels a great little piece of wishful thinking for Stilman fans.

But for most college kids, there will be less to associate with. Partly because most college kids don't know who Whit Stilman is. When I told the editors of Crushable that I was excited about Whit Stilman's new movie they said: “Who?”

Stilman's last project, The Last Days Of Disco, came out in 1998.  And it was about nostalgia for a music form that has been maligned since it went away in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the characters of Damsels exhibit a naivete so great that you could drive a Judd Apatow movie through the gaps in their understanding of pop culture.

Scratch that. They lack a knowledge of basic facts. For instance, the character of Thor (Billy Magnussen) is a frat boy who can't distinguish between colors. He was so precocious as a child that his parents advanced him past kindergarten and as a result he missed important lessons about the different colors. Now he's at college and can't tell the difference between green and blue. Another director might reveal at some point that Thor is color blind. But not Whit Stilman. At one point Thor nearly pitches himself off a rooftop in ecstasy when he properly identifies the colors of the rainbow.

For kids who are actually coming of age today, it will be hard to relate. But for those of us well past the indelicacies of the college experience, it can be easier to laugh at the earnestness of fuzzy headed coeds who immerse themselves in the lessons of the Great Books yet lack basic life skills.

At one point in the movie, Violet simultaneously annoys one neighbor and excites another with her tap dancing practice. And in the end, Damsels In Distress is a lot like an impromptu tap dance performance. For a select minority, it's an absolutely delightful divergence. But for most, it's a confusingly out of place outburst, bordering on nuisance.

That said, I will happily watch this movie again whenever and wherever it is placed before me. Likely as soon as it gets put on Netflix. Because I love Whit Stilman's dialogue. But then again, I'm an old person.

*Or someone who aspires to live in a time that no longer exists.