Movie Review: Damsels in Distress
Director: Whit Stillman
Reviewed: 15 April 2013
Sometimes a movie can be annoying, pretentious, or merely static. Sometimes a movie gets you on its side quickly, allowing you to forgive any flaws. I can see how some audiences could react to a social comedy like "Damsels in Distress" with its obvious debts to the works of Jane Austen, its nods to the self-obsessed world of academia, and its sun-dappled walks amongst gorgeous columned buildings. I think this film won me over in its first twenty minutes by being strange and deeply funny, so I decided to go along for the ride. I found myself beaming at the end and really recommend it, though I will understand if you dislike it.
Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), one of the lead characters in Whit Stillman's new film "Damsels in Distress," warns the women around her about men who send drinks to them at bars: "What you are describing is a 'playboy' or 'operator move.'" The way that she draws out the syllables in the word had me laughing more and more each time she said it. Rose, along with Violet (Greta Gerwig) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) form a trio committed to Suicide Prevention at Seven Oaks College, and in the first scene they adopt transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), taking her under the wing and bring her into their world. As Violet hilariously reminds Lily, "Have you heard the expression, prevention is nine tenths the cure? Well, in the case of suicide, it's ten tenths the cure." Violet and her friends upend the social order by selecting guys far below them on the social scale to date: "Take a man who hasn't realized his full potential-or doesn't have much yet...Then help him realize it or find more." Their philosophy involves elaborate dance sequences, long walks through campus, and pillow talk conversations where all four leads share a room. In a loose construction of chapters with cute names, the girls address the major issues of the day: dance crazes, 'operator' types, parties, and the like.
I first discovered Whit Stillman films in college where the Kenyon Film Society showed "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona." I remember the intelligence of his characters, the commitments to studying upper-crust society mores, and the brilliance of Chris Eigeman. "Damsels in Distress" is Gerwig's film, and as Violet she shines and gives very funny line readings. As an idealized, romantic version of college, Stillman constructs Seven Oaks as a site of warring interests, with the Romans (not Greek system) clashing with the elitist newspaper writers for the Daily Complainer being most amusing. Does everything in the film work? No. Tipton is asked to carry far too much of the storyline on her own which muddles the film. No male character is half as interesting as the female ones. Yet the work of Gerwig and Echikunwoke carry the day, and instead of a cool kids in school film like "Mean Girls" or "Heathers," and instead of an acidic attack on college and dating like Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things," Stillman focuses on a delightfully aloof, well- intentioned bubble of socially privileged and sheltered women with sharp wit, heartfelt emotions, and the ability to country line dance. From fashion to dialogue, the women seem wonderfully out of joint with their time. No one carries a phone or checks email. It is almost a shame that the men have to be included.