The Cure for the Common Coed
The Hyperarticulate Collegians of Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress
In Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, a young female student transfers to an East Coast university and finds herself welcomed, almost forcibly, into a female clique. Led by the Doris Day–ish Violet (Greta Gerwig), this small, unofficial sorority of Seven Oaks College is devoted to principles of respect, making good choices, and not killing yourself. Their days are spent giving doughnuts and tap-dance lessons to distraught students at the school's suicide-prevention center. Their nights are spent communing in pajamas and curlers, discussing, with a head-spinning level of precision, their goals, their dreams, and boys.
It's totally beguiling. At first, the girls' hyperarticulate, perfectly harmonious affectation suggests something otherworldly: Stepford coeds or robots that read about 1950s college life in an encyclopedia. But Damsels in Distress is wholly earthbound, and soon the human cracks start to show. Hearts are broken. Lies are exposed. Girls who should know better are bamboozled into degrading sex. Personalities are swapped like hats. Suicide is attempted, and prevented. Life philosophies swarm like gnats, buzzing endlessly around these under- construction kids.
Anchoring everything is the aforementioned Gerwig, a mumblecore veteran who here disappears into a totally stylized, wildly anachronistic character, and Stillman's script (Metropolitan, Barcelona), which never stops surprising even as it exasperates (on purpose—he's writing about college kids, for God's sake). The world of Damsels in Distress doesn't look a lot like life-as-it-is, but it's the most lyrical portrait of the insanity of American college life I've ever seen.