Friday, April 13, 2012

Damsels in Distress

It's been thirteen years since writer\director Whit Stillman has graced the screen with an original creation.  He was celebrated, and Oscar-nominated, for his unique, almost indescribable voice with 1990's Metropolitan and continued his divisive, remarkably skillful eye for deadpan dialogue and almost elitist point of view with moderate art house hits Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998.)  Nearly more idiosyncratic than the majority of American art house filmmakers, Stillman is striking because of his blend of a time and a space filled with characters, seemingly of great intelligence, that for lack of a better comparison, felt almost a cross between Woody Allen and Wes Anderson (before Wes Anderson.)  Ideally, the early 90s was an ideal time for this newly evocative voice to emerge, fresh to thrive somewhat in the era where alienating, yet unique voices like Todd Solondz, Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes and yes even Wes Anderson, were making their marks.  That culture in the American independent world has changed over the past decade, for good or bad is up to the eyes of the beholder.  However, in viewing Stillman's return Damsels in Distress, it appears that Stillman's voice has changed too.  And it appears not as fresh or as droll as his earlier works, but a bit beleaguered and far too out of touch with any sort of connection to the real world.

His latest takes place in a posh New England university, and is centered around a group of girls who appear not nearly alienated from their own generation, but alienated from any generation.  The same could be said for the film itself-- for this merrily filmed, pastel-colored production could almost be set in Mars with its relation to the real world.  Our group of girls-- headed by queen bee Violet (Greta Gerwig)-- are healers of such, but of an ironic, nearly Mean Girls meets the debutante ball variety.   Their purpose, if there is such, in this nearly nonsensical film, is to challenge and change the status quo of their peers.  Randomly these healing sessions include the importance of good hygiene (mixed with anachronistic clothing sense), the preference of suitors less cool, smart, or interesting then themselves, and a goal of preventing students from killing themselves (donuts and tap dancing are their preferred method of standing off depression.)  The real question, that's dressed up and partially masked by Stillman's unmatched verbiage and unquestionable knack for clever one liners, is what is point?

There's a sense towards the beginning that Violet's strange agendas and rejection to the seemingly bourgeoisie will be challenged by the arrival of transfer student Lily (played by the adorably waif  Analeigh Tipton-- the babysitter from Crazy, Stupid, Love.)  Lily's slightly rebellious action with her newly acquired friends is to, invariably, act rather normal.  Violet also has heart broken from her latest dim quest which sends her into, in her own words a "tailspin"-- she's actually quite mad herself, but never fully realized as a character or as more than an air quoted mask of whatever by Stillman.  Once a new, and again, quite strange boy (played by Adam Brody) enters the mix, again the audience eagerly awaits for something to actually happen.  Again, it's audience-- even those who may have been charmed in the past by Stillman's prior works-- are disappointed.  Gerwig has a nifty verve with some of the playful lines that Stillman displays, but like the rest of the cast, appears out of place with whatever retro-nonsense Damsels in Distress finally settles on.  C-

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