From the moment the Sony Pictures Classics logo pops up not in the usual blue -- but in cupcake frosting pink -- you know that Whit Stillman's first film in 13 years (!) is going to be something special. While word from Venice -- where the film closed the festival before heading to TIFF -- was good, the question to be answered was whether or not Stillman's style and cinematic persona would stand up in a filmmaking landscape that has changed immensely since "Last Days of Disco." Well, let there be no doubt: Stillman is just as enjoyable as when we last met him those many years ago, and "Damsels In Distress" finds the director with lots (and lots and lots) left to say.
Welcome to Seven Oaks University. Shot in soft honey hued yellows and baby blue pastels, there is no doubt you are stepping into a hyper-realized, dreamlike East coast college campus, and whether or not you're familiar with that world (or its sensibilities) will largely determine your enjoyment of the film. Indeed, Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) and her gals Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) are hilarious archetypes of intelligent and well-intentioned, but somewhat arrogant and pretentious students (usually of the art school variety) who perceive those outside their circle with a certain condescension and pity. Violet is determined to make a difference in people's lives in any way she can, and her first project is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a new transfer student who she hopes to guide around Seven Oaks, and who soon ends up rooming with the girls. Taking Violet's strange but determined goals to heart, she joins the girls at the campus Suicide Prevention Center where they work and push forward their ideals that good hygiene, tap dancing and the pleasant odor of perfume are the keys to mental health.
In case you haven't guessed, Stillman bravely goes out on a high wire for this film and presents a world that is completely and wholly his own. And judging by the small, but continual walkouts during the film, you will either embrace it or you won't. Admittedly, for this writer, it took a good 10 to 15 minutes to settle into Stillman's cotton candy-meets-university syllabus style, but once in there, it's mostly a pure joy. Dialogue has always been Stillman's strong suit and he delivers quips, one liners, high brow jokes and (less successfully) low brow guffaws in spades. It's a whipsmart and arch screenplay and for viewers willing to play along, and it's a pleasure unraveling the wordplay the actors clearly enjoy delivering (and do so with ease, which we can only imagine was due to extensive rehearsals). But not everything in the film is a success.
For anyone curious about possible Oscar play for the picture, it's not going to happen. "Damsels Is Distress" is just way too out there for anybody in the Academy and while the cast is good, it's really Stillman's work on the page and behind the camera that is the real star. But again, the daffy universe in which the film takes place requires an act of good will on behalf of the audience that isn't always rewarded. However, it will be interesting to see if the movie will gain any traction with those not familiar with his oeuvre (though if fans of Adam Brody get turned on to Stillman, that can't be a bad thing), but longtime fans will be glad to know that Stillman is back -- and it's like he was never gone. [B]