Washington-born writer-director Whit Stillman has gained a reputation for making cult classics that seem ripped from the pages of “The Official Preppy Handbook.” His movies have the power to make edgy indie fans marvel at debutante Manhattanites (“Metropolitan,” 1990), laugh along with insecure 20-somethings living abroad (“Barcelona,” 1994), even tap a foot as Ivy League grads shimmy onscreen during 1998’s “Last Days of Disco.”
His much-anticipated return to the big screen after 14 years lands Friday with “Damsels in Distress.” On the surface, this looks like classic Stillman. The setting is a private northeastern college; the characters are young and well-heeled; the witty dialogue comes so fast you need a second viewing. It also features Stillman’s favored plotline of thwarted love.
Yet “Damsels” marks a departure for the filmmaker. Even if Stillman hasn’t dispatched with pearls and blazers, he has severed ties with one longtime companion — reality.
This film is a farce about a group of earnest young women forced to deal with the messiness of college life, including cheating boyfriends, depressed peers and imbecilic fraternity members. Its college students haven’t yet mastered memorizing the colors of the rainbow, the smell of unbathed young men can send characters into a spasmodic “nasal shock syndrome,” and suicidal students fling themselves off two-story Robertson Hall (“not high enough to kill, but high enough to maim,” one character laments). The film culminates with a full-on song-and-dance number to the tune of George Gershwin’s “Things Are Looking Up.”
While this kind of absurdity might not amuse some of the more priggish characters Stillman has invented, it delights the director.
“I love Will Ferrell comedy. I love that innocent, idealistic kind of stupid comedy,” Stillman said while in town from New York for the American Film Institute’s retrospective in his honor last month. “ ‘Animal House’ was always a favorite movie. And without thinking about it, without realizing it, I think that sort of movie that I’d love to make someday came into this script.”
For 14 years, the man who gave the world so many gems of archly comic dialogue promoting bourgeoisie accomplishments has been quiet. His whereabouts were a subject of curiosity at the AFI’s recent sold-out sneak preview of “Damsels,” which was followed by a Q&A with Stillman and the film’s star, increasingly visible indie goddess Greta Gerwig. The writer-director responded with two of his trademarks, deadpan humor and modesty.
“I’m a failure,” he said.
In truth, Stillman has worked on a number of projects over the past decade-plus, many of them free of the typical characters that populate his films. It’s just that none got made, largely because of lack of financing. There was the adaptation of “Red Azalea,” Anchee Min’s memoir about the cultural revolution in China. He was attached to a screen version of Chris Buckley’s “Little Green Men,” as well as a film about the young members of a Jamaican church set against the backdrop of the early 1960s music scene in Kingston.
“There were all kinds of films I originally aspired to make — historical films, adventure films,” Stillman said. “But then you get in one track, and it seems that’s what people want you to do and that’s what you know how to do.”
The solution may be a film that looks like it belongs in his oeuvre, even if the similarities are mostly surface-deep. During February’s Dublin International Film Festival, where Gerwig took home the best actress prize, festival director Grainne Humphreys likened “Damsels” to Jane Austen meets “Animal House,” Stillman noted with some pride.
Some of the goofier portions of “Damsels” revolve around Gerwig’s character, Violet Wister, as she attempts to make Seven Oaks University a lovelier place. Along with distributing soap to one of the more malodorous dormitories, she plans to seal her legacy by inventing an international dance craze. Her creation, the Sambola, features prominently and hilariously in the closing credits, complete with instructions.
Previous movies integrated dancing into scenes, especially “Last Days of Disco,” but this marks the most overt use yet.
“I love it,” Stillman said of dance. “I love it in the real world, and I feel there’s too little of it. I think it’s very important in social life and in social worlds. It really kind of creates the reasons for people to get together and be together.”
“Damsels” features an array of fancy footwork, from tap to frat party boogieing to country line dancing. Yet it doesn’t take away from what Stillman is truly known for, and that’s witty dialogue, which flows rapid-fire, especially from Gerwig’s character and her potential love interest, played by Adam Brody of “The O.C.” fame.
“I think there are a lot of filmmakers who are great, but I think there are very few that love language the way Whit does. There’s kind of a dearth of that right now,” Gerwig said.
Gerwig knows a thing or two about working for talented writers, having also acted in movies by Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach, two filmmakers to whom Stillman is often compared (“my stock in the world of nervous men is quite high”).
“It’s fantastic, the reference to Woody Allen,” Stillman said. “But I thought it was a little illegitimate before, because he is very funny and breaks all the rules in order to have the comedy the best it can be. So he’s not naturalistic and realistic in a lot of his films. And this is the first film where I think the Woody Allen comparison is more relevant, because I think we’re taking liberties with naturalism in this film.”
But whether he is working in the reality of a New York condo or a fantasy world where tap dancing is therapy, Stillman proves he has one affinity that has nothing to do with aesthetics — it’s an enchanting sense of good cheer as the credits begin to roll.
Opens Friday at Shirlington, Bethesda Row and Landmark’s E Street Cinema.