Damsels in Distress
by Warren Curry
To begin this review, I’ll proclaim that “Damsels in Distress” is my favorite Whit Stillman film to date (and his first one in 14 years). And here’s where I should also confess that I’m not a fan of his other movies (with the exception of “The Last Days of Disco,” which I haven’t seen), so the use of the word favorite in the previous sentence is entirely relative. Having said that, “Damsels in Distress” has its share of amusing moments and also displays the interesting evolution of actress Greta Gerwig. I can’t guarantee it’s a film I’ll really remember in much detail several months from now, but it’s easy enough to watch.
Stillman’s films are littered with overeducated, highly pretentious people who act little like anyone I’ve ever met or would ever want to meet. What sets “Damsels in Distress” apart from “Metropolitan” and “Barcelona” is that he places the characters in an overtly fictional world, so it’s easy to view this movie’s environment as a kind of alternate reality. However, the script goes off track when it can’t decide on a central character and comes close to unraveling near the end.
Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is a new transfer student at Seven Oaks, a college located somewhere in the northeast. On her first day at the school, three girls approach Lily and offer to take her under their wing. These girls, Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), have made it their mission to help the school’s most depressed and, let’s say, academically challenged students. They run the Seven Oaks’ “suicide center,” where their main forms of therapy are tap dancing and soap for the male student population who apparently have a severe body odor problem.
Lily moves in with the girls, and though she becomes part of their group, she also retains her own individuality. She has an interest in French grad student, Xavier (Hugo Becker), but he has a girlfriend. She also becomes the object of a young businessman named Charlie’s (Adam Brody) affection, but there’s something about him her friends don’t trust. Headstrong Violet remains committed to saving the most vulnerable members of the student population until she discovers her “boyfriend” Frank (Ryan Metcalf) — a frat boy who’s part of the aforementioned academically challenged — doesn’t just have eyes for her.
This development sends Violet into a sad decline, which completely changes the character. The film’s first act leads you to believe it might turn out to be something akin to “Heathers” set in college, with Analeigh Tipton’s Lily being the equivalent of Winona Ryder’s Veronica. Yet that scenario never materializes, and the film gradually becomes cluttered with characters that don’t serve a distinct purpose.
Like Stillman’s earlier films, the dialogue is carefully stylized, or perhaps you could say incredibly self-conscious. In his earlier work, I find this quality supremely irritating, but as noted earlier, it feels like the director is laughing at (not with) his characters much more this time around. Violet’s philosophy of dating beneath oneself to ensure a loyal partner and her dream of starting a new dance craze are character quirks that work far better than it might seem on paper. Growing out of her “Queen of Mumblecore” phase, Greta Gerwig has now tackled a variety of roles and plays Violet with such admirable earnestness. It’s a wholly committed and endearing performance.
In the film’s final 10 or so minutes, I was completely ready for it to end, but that shouldn’t negate the fact that there are several charms along the way. I’m not exactly ready to call myself a Whit Stillman fan yet, but this film certainly makes me less of a detractor.
Damsels in Distress (USA/2011)
Director: Whit Stillman
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Adam Brody, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Hugo Becker
Rated PG-13, 99 minutes
(Sony Pictures Classics. Opens in limited release on April 6, 2012.)