In the 28-year-old, the director has found his soulmate: here’s an actress who delivers his hyper-literate dialogue with aplomb, who has an air of having spent her teens listening to Jacques Brel and watching ‘Annie Hall’ on repeat. She stars as Violet, the ringleader of a gang of girls at an East Coast American university whose mission is to make college life more fragrant: they’re not so much mean girls as girls who mean well.
For all its eccentric charms, ‘Damsels’ is an acquired taste. If the prospect of a pair of undergraduates self-consciously discussing whether love is more like algebra or geometry causes your lip to curl into an involuntary sneer, you may well find this film infuriatingly mannered and faux. Even fans might find it hard to shift gears into Stillman’s world this time round. He calls it utopian. And what he means is he’s stripped it of such vulgarities as gum-chewing, swear words and explicit sex (there is a running joke about anal sex, but even that bookishly involves a heretical breakaway Christian sect).
Violet and her twinset crew run the campus’s Suicide Centre (aim: prevention), treating depression with tap dancing. Violet’s ambition is to start a dance craze and she has a peculiar take on relationships: intelligent men are to be avoided; stick to meatheads. The group takes a new girl (Analeigh Tipton) under its wing; she turns out to be a cuckoo in the nest and her boyfriend a rat, and Violet becomes depressed, or, as she says, has a tailspin. While the comedy might be patchy, Gerwig and Stillman make for quite the two-step.