I’m a big fan of Metropolitan, the first movie by writer/director/producer Whit Stillman, although I know it (as well as his other films) is an acquired taste. Stillman is one of those filmmakers whose movies are very literary — the characters talk more than they act, and being young people they often think they know more than they actually do. Stillman made two more films (Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco) in the 1990s, but Damsels in Distress is his first film in nearly fourteen years.
All these years later Stillman is still Stillman — his characters still speak like they planned their witty repartee several hours in advance — but the world he creates in Damsels in Distress is so immersive that it’s easy to forget that this isn’t supposed to be reflection of reality. The story of Damsels in Distress centers on Seven Oaks College junior Violet (Greta Gerwig), her two friends Heather (Carrie Maclemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and their newest companion, Lily (Analeigh Tipton). Violet is the ringleader of this group of pretty, but socially stringent girls who not only seek to change the culture of the pedestrian atmosphere at Seven Oaks, but they also run the Suicide Prevention Center, which seeks to prevent any on-campus suicides with coffee, donuts, and musical dance numbers. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
Violet is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching in a film. Like many college students, she is convinced that she is more knowledgeable than anyone else about the proper way to live a fulfilling life, especially the slow-witted campus frat boys. Problem is, Violet is in love with Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a member of the even dumber-than-the-usual -stereotype D.U. fraternity. Lily wonders why an intelligent girl like Violet would date a “moron” like Frank. Violet shrugs it off and explains that she is against the idea of seeking someone that is “better” than her. “Why not instead fine someone who’s frankly inferior?” she asks. Violet’s ultimate career goal is creating the world’s next dance craze (“Something that might enhance the life of everyone — and every couple”), but her changing relationship with Frank and her friends often causes her to question all the thoughts and values she has so far been so sure about.
That’s the best I can do with providing a basic plot summary of Damsels in Distress, but I admit it’s pretty hopeless. Like Stillman’s other films, Damsels in Distress focuses on that period in every young person’s life in which one is convinced he or she has all the answers. Now that a significant amount of American youth go to college, it has become a four-year (or more) era of “finding” yourself, which, for many seems to be the era of thinking you know it all. Good students often debate half-digested ideas that they didn’t fully grasp from their philosophy class while bad students look at class as something you might do between parties. Of course, there’s a middle ground, but Damsels in Distress ignores that to enhance the comedy, since comedy, after all, is about extremes.
Oh yeah, this is a comedy — and a very funny one at that. Everyone in the film is a memorable comedic character, like Xavier (pronounced Yav-ee-aye, like Zorro, apparently, played by Hugo Becker), Lily’s grad-school love interest who is trying out new religions that promote a particular kind of non-reproductive love, Heather, who follows Violet’s ideas but has wild theories of her own, and Thor (Billy Magnussen), a D.U. fratboy who never learned colors. They range from the believable to the ridiculous, but they all add their particular charm to the film.
The most impressive, however, is Gerwig as Violet. I recently saw Gerwig in the indie film The Dish and the Spoon, which I didn’t particularly care for (a bit too quirky). Here she is brilliant, from her odd cadence to her character’s clear OCD tendencies she manages to display a range of emotions despite Violet’s rather stonefaced exterior. There’s a great scene between Violet and Rose toward the end of the film about Rose’s English accent that shows the intelligence bubbling under Gerwig’s performance.
Damsels in Distress is the type of film you can’t explain because the experience watching it is so unique. Though it seemed about 10 minutes too long due to its dialogue-heavy nature, these are characters that are enjoyable to watch with their cluelessness of young adulthood. Nonetheless, while Stillman’s films are an acquired taste, Damsels in Distress is probably his most mainstream film since it’s far funnier that Metropolitan. If you can stomach listening to a lot of dialogue, you’ll enjoy it immensely — and you’ll totally get why the film ends in such a goofy, but uplifting, fashion.
Rating: I enjoyed Damsels in Distress more than I expected, and the more I think about it, the more I like it (9/10)