Damsels in Distress (2011) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA rated: sexual material and language
Running time: 99 min.
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Ryan Metcalf, Hugo Becker, Jermaine Crawford, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Zach Woods, Adam Brody, Billy Magnusson, Aubrey Plaza
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenplay: Whit Stillman
Review published November 12, 2012
Lily (Tipton, The Green Hornet) is a transfer student to a new college who is instantly befriended by a trio of female college students to form a clique of sorts to counter-act the "unwashed masses" that represent much of the regular student body at their school. The leader of the clique is Violet (Gerwig, No Strings Attached), who takes Lily under her wing in order to impart the kind of woman she should be, and what kind of man she should be going after. Violet is a busybody whose interests include keeping a suicide prevention center open, providing dance instruction to the residents on the theory that the activity can cure them from depression. Meanwhile, all four of the girls encounter what seems to be a game of musical chairs with the boys, all of whom they deem to be inferior in some major way, and they mean to build them up to a satisfactory condition, much as they do in the way of everything else in their lives.
Damsels in Distress represents the first film from writer/director Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco, Barcelona) in 13 years, continuing, albeit in an uneven fashion, the filmmaker's quirky, preppy style and observant, Ivy-league comedy-of-manners characterizations that he introduced us to over a decade ago. It all feels a little old fashioned, as these young women look and act unlike typical college students -- no texting, emails, and a rather quaint view of modern life. It's no surprise, as Stillman made this film at the ripe age of 59 years old, a long way from the days of college and vernacular of the millennials. It would almost entirely be plausible for Stillman to have made this film around the same era as his other three films from the 1990s, with the exception of a comment about dancing to a "Golden Oldie" when "Another Night" by Real McCoy plays at a local frat party. There's not much here in terms of plotline, but it's a breezy, witty and often insightful film that entertains while it is on, even if, in the end, it's a light load of intellectual fluff.
While the film starts off as if it is innocently clean-slate Lily who would be the protagonist, the Violet character ultimately emerges as the main player, as if Lily were merely there to allow for a repeat introduction of Violet's philosophies on life, love, and happiness. While none of the characters could be called three-dimensional, particularly in the male characters, the interplay of the girls is fun to watch. They love to dance whenever possible, and aren't afraid to be just a little bit rude and condescending to those they consider beneath them, as the film often encroaches on the black comedy styles of other clique films like Heathers (perhaps not coincidentally, one of the quartet is named Heather) and Mean Girls. Much of the enjoyment of the film lies with how much you enjoy Violet's pompously oddball character, as well as Gerwig's straight-faced representation of her follies to exact the betterment of what's around her, even if it is only in the way she sees it.
While fans of Stillman will largely enjoy seeing him continue the kinds of patrician-tinged movies they've enjoyed in the past, there will be some who expect more from the filmmaker after 13 years of thought than what might be his lightest and loosest film thematically. Those who aren't familiar may encounter a similar effect of watching a Woody Allen film, whereby the characters all seem to speak in the same language regardless of age or station, which is that of the writer/director, rather than have voices of their own. More of a curiosity and minor crowd pleaser confection than a truly fleshed-out movie, it will go down easy for those looking for a smart, frothy, felicitous dessert.
©2012 Vince Leo