Damsels in Distress
JIM ROSS thinks there is a charming and incredibly funny film in Whit Stillman’s new feature, if you’re ready to embrace it.
Directed by Whit Stillman
Whit Stillman is a director who can divide opinion, and his latest feature Damsels in Distress is likely to continue that trend. After producing a trilogy of films in the 1990s taking swipes at certain social classes, his latest feature takes on the pseudo-intellectuals (and their opposites) of student life.
On the campus of the fictional Seven Oaks College, we follow ‘the Damsels’ and their interactions with ‘their Distress’ – alarmingly stupid boys and their attempts to improve the happiness of others. The lead damsel is Greta Gerwig, playing the offbeat and self-possessed, if well-intentioned, Violet. Along with her friends and new recruit Lily (Analeigh Tipton), they work in the campus Suicide Prevention Center and date men they feel are below them, for the ‘charitable’ goal of lifting them up.
Whitman has written his own script, as with his previous features, and continues to display an ear for witty dialogue – funny as much for its construction and tone as its content. Greta Gerwig proves an excellent casting decision, playing Violet as a sufferable know-it-all, as her performance retains a humility and vulnerability that keeps you rooting for her despite her slightly aloof nature. Her posse of like-minded friends, including the perhaps more independently minded newcomer Lily, are the sort of women who believe the creation of her new dance craze, the Sambola, will bring more joy in the world.
With the stupefyingly dumb male jock characters (who don’t know basic colours), and females who talk in an extremely deliberate and arch fashion (one puts on what turns out to be a fake English accent throughout), the tone of Damsels in Distress won’t sit well with everyone. The film is a wry look at those going through the university experience, but primarily the American college experience. It is populated by folk who construct ponderous intellectual identities for themselves and are intensely self-possessed at times, but whose motives keep you on their side… hopefully.
If you want to hurl your shoe at the screen come the final scene, or even after the first one, I perhaps wouldn’t blame you. If you can click with the tone of the film, however, then it will reward you with plenty of laughs and sprinkle of charm. There is a certain old-fashioned feel to this campus comedy, quite at odds with an American Pie and Old School saturated century, which seems like a breath of fresh air. Contrary to what may be its first impression, Damsels in Distress is not ‘quirky’, as such. However, you really do need to embrace the tone of Stillman’s film to be receptive to its particular brand of humour.