Damsels in Distress
Directed by Whit Stillman
Opens April 27 at the Charles Theatre
“You think knowing the colors is important?” asks Thor (Billy Magnussen), one of the frat boys on the campus of Seven Oaks College in Whit Stillman’s deadpan comedy Damsels in Distress. Thor has accidentally revealed that he can’t correctly identify the color of a chair, and a young woman in the room gives him a pitying look. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think you should feel embarrassed about not knowing stuff,” he continues. “What’s embarrassing is pretending to know what you don’t.”
There’s a dollop of naive truth to what Thor says, but it’s flabbergasting that what prompted it is the fact that he didn’t know blue from green. It’s one of the many absurd instances of Stillman’s nimble humor that makes Damsels such a blithe entertainment. For every utterly outlandish situation—a grad student claiming to practice Catharism, the insistence that being clinically depressed requires a note from a clinic—there’s a vulnerable sprinkling of humility on top that makes the characters feel recognizably human.
The movie follows the romantic and academic travails of Violet (Greta Gerwig), who, along with her friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), takes transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under her wing to teach her the ins/outs of Seven Oaks life. When Violet catches her beau smooching another woman, she falls into a tailspin, ventures to a cheap motel in a neighboring town, and has a life-altering experience with a bar of soap. She returns with a rejuvenated belief in the restorative properties of good smells, devises a plan to have a positive impact on campus life by mailing bars of soap to the most malodorous fraternity, and aspires to create a life-affirming popular dance.
The plot is fairly inconsequential, as Damsels’ version of undergraduate life is an imaginary utopia. Stillman uses it more as the backdrop for daydreaming young people starting to transition into the reality of adulthood, and he zeroes in on the comic conflicts of imagination colliding with actuality. College becomes that place where who people wish they were gets whittled into an understanding of who they are, and Stillman has the mature restraint not to do it with a serrated cynical blade. He instead mines the comedy of precocious seriousness, and the results are moments of the wonderfully pointless. When a friend corrects Violet on something, Gerwig masterfully offers Violet’s appreciation with unironic sincerity: “I’d like to thank you for this chastisement.”