Whit Stillman excels in creating these little bubble universes, worlds in which all the characters are hyper-articulate and obsessed with the minutiae of social graces and etiquette – delightfully skewed takes on reality. In his first film in 13 years (after 1998’s The Last Days Of Disco), Stillman seems to have found his muse in mumblecore heroine Greta Gerwig.
She plays Violet, the leader of a clique of an idealistic trio of girls at Seven Oaks campus that includes inexplicably British-accented Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and naïve but sweet Heather (Carrie Maclemore). They take newcomer Lily (Annaleigh Tipton), who’s initially bemused by the girls’ outlook under their wing.
They’re a bit like Mean Girls, but rather than maliciously sniping at their perceived social inferiors, they’re convinced that they’re “improving” the lives of their fellow students. As such they run the campus Suicide Prevention Centre where they earnestly prescribe doughnuts and tap-dancing as cures for clinical depression.
Meanwhile, Violet dreams of starting her own dance craze (The Sambola), and actively avoids seeing intelligent men – her philosophy is that it’s her duty to uplift the lives of the less fortunate by dating them. Violet doesn’t see any of this as being haughty or patronising – merely being kind – it’s that kind of oblivious innocence which makes her so charming.
Gerwig is pitch perfect as Violet and Damsels In Distress gives her exactly the right outlet for her brand of quirky idiosyncrasy. She seems absolutely tailor-made for Stillman’s deliberately constructed dialogue.
The script is frequently laugh-out-loud funny and almost endlessly quotable, flirting with both satire and absurdity. So there are intellectual discussions on the correct plural of doofus (doofi?), a running gag about “playboy operator types”, another running gag about anal sex (masquerading as the peculiarities of an obscure religious order), a character who doesn’t know the names of basic colours and delightful last reel dance scene.
Granted, it’s not a film that’s going to be to everyone’s taste. If the idea of preppy characters spouting deliberately arch dialogue annoys you, then it might be better to give it a miss. However, it should be mentioned that this isn’t like Juno – here characters don’t speak in an impenetrable babble-speak. It is however, irrepressibly charming, affectionate and fun and a brilliant alternative take on the college campus movie. Highly recommended.