The 1970s antihero introduced a flatline narrative direction to American film. No longer popular were the do-right crescendos of Frank Capra or the rugged moral currents of Raoul Walsh. From Hud through Jack Nicholson’s peak, narratives were no longer pulled along by nobleness, but instead found some swamp and stomped around. Antiheroes found chic anti-climaxes. Then what? Now, hip indie films find new ways to dramatize non-resolution, while mainstream films find resolution in self-discovery. (In short, Judeo-Christian “goodness” replaced by Joseph Campbell through George Lucas.) Most current filmmakers, then, stagnate the narrative in order to stay cool, since personal growth reeks of Robert McKee cliché. However engaging the characters and dialogue in contemporary narrative film, sometimes one just wants them to move, to go somewhere, anywhere. What I’m arguing for is not for any specific morals (the moral standard could be made up), but any internal rather than external conflicts that a crowd can get behind.
Whit Stillman’s at war with cool. His latest film is in every sense a throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age. It’s also a throwback to Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan, in which an outsider finds easy entry into a pack of welcoming snobs. In Damsels in Distress, the outsider is the lovely provincial transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who finds herself rooming with Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), the reputed bitchiest girls on campus whose hobbies are self-improvement (of others) and perfume. Campus life at Seven Oaks seems to be divided up into second-tier boys (Romans rather than Greeks), smelly dormers, feckless suicidal education students, and smarmy wannabe journos, so Lily feels lucky to have found a cool crowd. Until she realizes that these girls, in particular ringleader Violet, are actually a little crazy.
When Violet’s dim D.U. frat dude leaves her for one of her pet projects from the suicide prevention center, Violet goes into a “tailspin.” She mopes and wanders to cheap motels off campus. She comes back and flaunts her weakness. As played by Gerwig, Violet is one of the great female characters in cinema: an idiosyncratic visionary, gently nuts, and kinder than you. Gerwig has long been a smart girl playing winsomely vague, but here she gets to be wildly intense and intelligent, while showing off precisely calibrated comic timing. With Stillman she’s not afraid of subtle precisions going unnoticed.
Violet isn’t a masochist, exactly, but she refuses to participate in petty conflict. When Lily becomes her romantic rival, she rises above and says, of course, Lily is lovely. She’s sympathetic to the doofus who broke her heart when he in turn gets his karmic revenge, because she’s the only one who can translate his moronic grunts. As she floats above petty conflict and easy outs, so too does the narrative tone of the film evolve, from campus-clique upended clichés to a utopian musical of lunatics, all living in step with each other’s bizarre, harmless, even fun, delusions. The key moment in the film is when Lily confesses that she, who wears Converse not cardigans like the other floral girls, just wants to be normal. The odd one out here is the sole vote for normalcy. But the antagonist in this pack of crazies is also the most sympathetic character, so the generosity of spirit in Violet is echoed in the film. There’s no external conflict, only endless challenges to better yourself and get along with others. Violet doesn’t mind the deflection, as long as Lily will still play the part she’s written for her in a kookoo line-dancing inspired musical.
So much for the damsels, now let’s mention their distress: the dudes. Most notable: Adam Brody as Charlie. Where have you been all Stillman’s working life? Brody does something magical to the slightly flimsy, painfully self-aware, low-budget idealism of Stillman’s world. He certifies it. With Brody’s plucky charisma and unwavering enthusiasm, not to mention tunefulness, his entry to the dotty narrative, as a self-invention-obsessed student, means finally Gerwig’s Ruby Keeler has found her Dick Powell. “You want to go to Violet’s craziest scheme yet?” asks Lily. “Ye-ah!” he says like a culty Californian. “I love a dance craze!”
A more controversial entry to Stillman’s world might be the writer-director’s attempt to do broad comedy with the D.U. frat boys, two of whom are so dumb they don’t know how to differentiate the shades in a color wheel. Stillman takes a radical, maybe even method, approach to broad comedy. As noted in the press notes, this is the first film for Ryan Metcalf, who plays Violet’s idiotic former beau. (“Do you mind if I try a version that’s a little broad?” Stillman remembers Metcalf saying of the moment when the role clicked.) Stillman doesn’t get a Chris Eigeman-type to play dumb because that would have been condescending. But the amateur playing broad comedy opens up some breathing room in Stillman’s highly enunciated, dense comedy. The clash of styles in this film is bewildering and then disarming. The characters’ sweetness toward the shockingly dumb is mirrored by the way an amateur is welcomed into this group of skilled players pushing their limits with some of the talkiest, most literary comedy currently going. Everyone works to the best of his ability. And that may be the lesson of this low-budget but candy-colored, sunlit musical: Work with what you’ve got. (Which is also a return to Metropolitan for Stillman. He had so little money to make his first film that he used rented tuxes and gold paint to create a code, to fabricate a specific world.)
And the other D.U. dummy, Thor (Billy Magnussen), becomes the mascot of the film. He learns something! He picks up the latest dance craze on campus, the Sambola, which is Violet’s biggest undertaking—to improve the lives of everyone, and every couple. “Sambola!” might be shorthand for a message that, if you follow certain steps, even sloppily, as long as you’re a pain-in-the neck about never compromising, as long as you keep at it, you too can be a better person. Or make better movies. Stillman’s latest is not only his best, it’s a boost for what American independent cinema could be.