I had a conversation at some point in college with a then-friend who was also starting to tear through the Criterion Collection. She'd watched Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (which I hadn't yet seen) and declared it the worst, most pretentious piece of bougie indulgence she'd ever had the misfortune of seeing. I recalled this as I watched Damsels in Distress, Stillman's newest. Here, the action is situated on a college campus. Through an intrepid young banterer named Lily (Analeigh Tipton), we meet a group of upper middle class 'do-gooders' led by the cheerfully affected Violet (Greta Gerwig). Violet and her small band of cardigan prepsters put in hours and hours working in the Suicide Prevention Center feeding donuts and coffee to their depressed classmates, searching for the telltale sources of their grief, and -wait for it- attempting to single-handedly cure them with tap dancing and wonderful smelling soap (hygiene is key). This is just that kind of world. At one point, Violet defends a supremely doltish 'Roman' fraternity house against the newspaper's accusations of elitism by questioning how on Earth a group of morons could be considered elitist. If anything, she observes, they deserve our pity. Indeed, you could say the same thing about the film itself. Where Stillman dabbles in worlds of disposable income, pedantry, and fast-talking East coast WASPs, there's a sublime silliness to the whole thing. Damsels in Distress is endearingly screwball, pretentiously lighthearted, and so clever in its absolute stupidity that I had to stop and wonder if Stillman had always been this way or if he's playing into his own criticism.
Of course, the entire purpose of Damsels seems to be a sort of good-natured meandering. This is a talking and walking movie; a film made up of little comic vignettes, observations, and instances that cling together by the threads of semesters at small liberal arts schools across the country. Loosely, the overarching theme is partially a sort of satirizing of the holier-than-thou social consciousness via TOMS shoes cool kids (which 21 Jump Street made note of), and partially a skewering of a certain type of reaching intellectualism. Here, the so-called morons are dumb at an unheard of level. Violet informs us that she believes in dating down to help the less fortunate realize a sort of inner potential. Her boyfriend doesn't know what color his eyes are while, meanwhile, his housemate doesn't even know the names of the colors (not an exaggeration). Yet, while Violet is certainly a smarter girl than that, her constant optimistic pontification belies her own lack of a certain type of intelligence. She's ridiculous without knowing it, a role Gerwig pulls off with amicable ease. Where she's played a few quirky characters of this sort in her brief history as an actress, Violet is a comic standout who hits that perfect sweet spot between the massively irritating and sweetly confused. The entire film is smartly cast with a blend of overacting underactors, if that paradoxical statement makes any sense. While at points its endless blathering may grow a little tiring, there's something charming about the whole ordeal. Damsels in Distress in an accessible film gussied up as something traditionally pretentious. If you can laugh at its bald-faced absurdities, though, it has a script full of very very funny observations and idiosyncrasies.