[Review] – Damsels In Distress

25 Apr

Title: Damsels in Distress
Year: 2012
Director: Whit Stillman
Writer: Whit Stillman
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Hugo Becker, Ryan Metcalf, Alia Shawkat, Aubrey Plaza, Zach Woods
MPAA Rating: PG-13, mature thematic content including some sexual material
Runtime: 99 min
IMDb Rating: 6.8
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Metacritic: 68

I’m a big, big fan of writer-director Whit Stillman. The Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan are true favorites of mine, so trust me when I tell you I had been clamoring for the auteur to make his return into theaters this year, close to thirteen years since his last feature, with his brand new film Damsels in Distress. And well, even if Damsels in Distress wasn’t that first A+ of the year I was holding out for it to be, it’s still a tremendously fun film, my second favorite of the year to date, in fact, and it all boils down to the fact that Whit Stillman is a director that really knows how to write great characters and terrific dialogue, and the cast that he assembled for this one is just sheer fun to watch play together. I actually can’t wait to watch this one a second time.

Leading the aforementioned cast, by the way, is Greta Gerwig, who frequent readers of mine will know I have a huge thing for. She really shines in this film, delivering a true star turn that makes the film itself shine alongside her, and makes its sharpness and quirky sensibilities all the better for her presence in this film; Whit Stillman, I would admit, is something of an acquired taste, and to have someone as compulsively watchable and likable as Ms. Gerwig is a nice way to have the door of his films opened for your viewing pleasure.

She plays Violet Wister, the leader of sorts of the group of girls the film focuses on. Girls who attend a fictional Ivy League-type East Coast college which is most definitely male-dominated and who want to change a thing or two in the environment they live in. So yes, Damsels in Distress is set in college, and in a way behaves like an 80’s campus comedy would; though one directed by a man with a really unique and great voice. The college is governed by the sort of Greek institutions we have seen and heard so much about (though in this film they’re Roman and not Greek), and in it we have Violent and her other damsels, Heather and Rose, plus Lily, the fresher they snag up to make their trio a foursome, try to make a better place. And yes, they all have names of flowers.

They go at this by trying to teach the people surrounding them a series of things, like the existence of a good deodorant or perfume, the magic that dance numbers can provide (a dance style invented by Violet herself, natch), and they also start dating men that are sort of inferior to them just so that they can make them feel better, which is a charitable work that goes hand in hand with the fact that they run a suicide prevention center on campus. From them on it’s all about how open you are to Whit Stillman’s brand of tweeness in how he tells the story of the introduction of Lily to the world of Seven Oaks College; which is all about young people trying to find their true identities in the midst of some really great bright colors and dance numbers and some truly nifty dialogue.

Because, really, one of the greatest delights you’ll get out of watching Damsels in Distress is the sheer awesomeness of its dialogue. These are campus teenagers that speak like no other campus teenagers in film history; they don’t say “like” every three words, they don’t squeal “oh my god” every so often, they express their thoughts, which are hugely original on their own right, in really awesomely articulated ways, and that alone makes this film worthy of watch. But it’s not just twee dialogue on overboard and the fact that this film can coast by on the charms of its stars alone, because even though there are couple of instances in which you’re not entirely sure what Mr. Stillman is trying to say or where he’s trying to go, you’ll realize that, as the film inches forward along its ninety-nine minute running time, via dance numbers and witty remarks, it’s also becoming more and more deep as it goes along.

You have to love the dialogue, you really do. Even when the pacing sort of falters a tiny bit, this is still a tremendously funny film with great one-liners that you’d love to see yourself quoting but then you’ll realize Greta Gerwig and company are probably cooler than you so you probably wouldn’t sound as awesome quoting it. Because Ms. Gerwig really is the perfect muse for Mr. Stillman; the charm she brings along to the Violet character is incredible, making her a sympathetic yet complicated girl, and the way she delivers her lines is truly invaluable. Because the way Mr. Stillman writes his dialogue, as truly witty and awesomely structured as it may be, is in a way that many actors could deliver and it would sound too much like reading off a page, the way Ms. Gerwig spats it out it seems as though she’s just simply talking regularly, albeit using some truly rad sentences.

It’s obviously a different kind of film than the trilogy of sorts Mr. Stillman made with his first three features (the aforementioned The Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan, as well as Barcelona). This one’s looser, a bit more absurdist what with the song-and-dance routines and its jokes, and not as concentrated on examining very real social realities, yet still very much detail-oriented in its presentation of a campus comedy. I won’t go on ahead and describe every situation and character presented in this film, not because I don’t want to spoil this one because my retelling of it wouldn’t really do it justice, but because it’s not that pivotal. Just be assured that alongside Mr. Gerwig you have Adam Brody and Analeigh Tipton, who are both really great, and Aubrey Plaza and Zach Woods knocking it way out of the park in smaller roles, too.

Whit Stillman is a guy who plays by his own rules, that much is true, and that’s great because he’s given us a film that’s unlike anything out there right now, especially when you consider most recent films set in a college campus. There are really complex romantic pairings going on in this film, and delightful dance numbers and charming performances by great actors playing characters that you can just tell Mr. Stillman loves and had a great time writing, which makes them just much easier for you to love and have a great time watching. Plus, Whit Stillman’s back, that’s reason enough to celebrate.

Grade: A

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2 Responses to “[Review] – Damsels In Distress”

  1. EvilPopKorn April 25, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

    This movie looks kinda funny in a very dark way. I can’t wait till it comes out on dvd so I can watch!

    • ArtfullyBedraggled April 25, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

      It’s super funny in a weird kind of way. But I really, really recommend it. Thanks for reading!

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