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Damsels in Distress

Being a fan of the work of director Whit Stillman is undoubtedly an acquired taste, and I’ve always been a highly supportive member of the team. Cult, you say? Well, considering that he’s never had a film gross more than 8 million dollars and that his latest barely broke a million—I would say cult favorite is entirely accurate. And then there’s the issue of being able to quantify being a lover of Whit. Is it the wry humor in his scripts and the atypical cadence in the performances he culls from his actors? Without question, the rarefied world of upper-class New York debutantes highlighted in his 1990 debut feature, “Metropolitan” was a universe of particular insulation. Whit’s ability to make that material palatable to a self-described “poor boy from Jersey City” proved his talent could manage to charm a diverse following. It brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. 1994’s “Barcelona”, Stillman’s most financially successful film to date, was equally exclusive in its depiction of a Chicago salesman and his Naval officer cousin discovering life and love in the Spanish city during the early 1980’s. 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco” is decidedly his most accessible story(and his best film)chronicling the early twenty-something existence of Ivy League and Hampshire graduates living in railroad-style apartments and frequenting the soon-to-collapse Manhattan disco scene. And major portions of it were shot in Jersey City at one of the elaborate movie palaces of my youth—the now restored Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Journal Square. Be still my poor boy heart. “Disco” starred the delectable duo of Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale when they were thisclose to becoming household names. After completing his “loose trilogy”, and garnering a wide range of critical acceptance, Stillman’s future as a writer/director appeared secure. Instead there’s been a fourteen year hiatus. Until now, that is.

Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress” is a delightfully quirky romp that hopefully ushers in a whole new generation of fans. It’s utterly charming depiction of East Coast college life centering on a trio of eccentric girls and their “training” of a new “recruit” could be viewed as a much gentler version of “Heathers” for the new millennium. In fact, these young flowers are monikered Violet(Greta Gerwig), Rose(Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather(Carrie MacLemore) and fledgling member Lily(Analeigh Tipton). Its farcical chronicling of the student body is ridiculous and exhilarating. A young man who never learned to properly identify colors. “Suicide attempts” off of a ledge barely ten feet off the ground(resulting in a series of broken ankles). And a suicide prevention center that provides free donuts and treatments involving therapy through tap-dancing. Also, our lead heroine Violent(the suddenly prolific and always enchanting Ms. Gerwig)experiences a transformative experience involving the scent of a bar of motel soap. It’s a wonderful, whimsy stew—and I ate it all right up. If not quite as accomplished as his 1990’s output, it is still a mostly glorious return for Stillman.

Is there a 21st century audience for this type of film? Early evidence is not encouraging via the harsh reality of tepid box office receipts. Again, do enough people have the sophistication to appreciate something of this nature? Twenty years ago I could picture it becoming an unexpected video/cable hit—I have my doubts about an equal scenario playing out in current day. Audiences largely lack the patience for this type of work and resort to off-handedly labeling it “weird”. For once, I write this free of anger or sarcasm, but with an ample helping of sadness instead. What do modern adult filmgoers require? Are we no longer artistically inquisitive? Do we just desire the same-old, same-old, day in and day out? How many “housewives” shows can you stand? C’mon, live a little. Expand the breadth of your film-watching experience and cultivate a bit of Whit.      Grade: B

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