Disappointing... yet brilliant

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Damsels In Distress

Director Whit Stillman

Stars Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke

USA 2011

Language English

1hr 39mins


Utterly charming return from upper-class chronicler Whit Stillman

Deciding who to talk to your first day of college can be a life-changing call. Lily (Analeigh Tipton) doesn’t have much choice in the matter, being descended upon at her first day at pretty, posh Seven Oaks by Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore). They make up a clique of eccentric, patronising but well-meaning girls who favour cardis and A-line skirts, believe in the positive power of good hygiene, purposely chose to date men others consider losers and volunteer at a campus Suicide Prevention Center offering doughnuts and dancing as balms for troubled souls.

Damsels In Distress is a campus comedy complete with frat houses under threat and togas. But it also marks the return of one of America’s most distinctive filmmakers, Whit Stillman. He turned up in the indie wave of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but he was already middle-aged and his characters weren’t dope-smoking slackers or downtown hipsters – they were anxious debutantes and their even more anxious dates. His first film, Metropolitan, was funny and fresh; his second, Barcelona, a grumpy misstep; his third, The Last Days Of Disco, was terrific – but that was in 1998. Since then, nothing on the film front. Now, rather surprisingly, he’s back.

Since he was never seemed very contemporary – his 1990s films are set in a backwards-looking corners of the ’80s – this doesn’t matter as much as it would do for many directors. Damsels In Distress is out of time (in a good way) – often it could be set in the ’30s or the ’50s or the ’80s. It takes the stuff that made up Stillman’s earlier films – chapter headings, the obsessive characters, their taste for long-forgotten intellectual theories, his belief in the transformative power of dancing for otherwise uptight people – and gives it a lighter, warmer touch. In places, this is a wonderfully silly film. And it has the best running gag using euphemisms for a particular sex act since Mallrats.

Greta Gerwig, the reigning queen of US low-budget movies may be a bit past college age but she’s absolutely perfect as fragrantly crusading Violet, who is suddenly beset by doubt. The rest of the cast are mostly unknown to me – apart from Seth from The OC and Dukie from The Wire – but they all do a splendid job.

A most delightful movie. 

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