Damsels in Distress-attachment0

Damsels in Distress

Movie Information

The Story: A group of girls who are the self-appointed arbiters of good taste and mental health at an upscale university set out to change the world — or at least the school. The Lowdown: A delightfully quirky, intelligent and surprisingly warm-hearted small-scale comedy that some will likely find meandering and shapeless, while those in tune with it will consider it to be the most refreshing film of the year.
Score:

Genre: Comedy
Director: Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco)
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Adam Brody, Hugo Becker, Ryan Metcalf
Rated: PG-13

Let me be completely upfront about this—I absolutely loved Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, but I know nothing about the three films in his rather sparse filmography that came before it. (Now, I’m determined to catch up with them.) As a result, I can’t put this fim into a context that will mean anything to Stillman’s admirers. From my perspective, Damsels in Distress seems to inhabit a world not unlike the ones found in the films of Wes Anderson and Rian Johnson. (It most resembles Rushmore, but don’t take that comparison too far.) That’s to say it takes place in a present that has more in common with the past, and seems to have been made by someone who is more comfortable with an earlier time—though not in a deliberate or especially reactionary manner. There’s a sense of yearning for a more glamorous, better spoken and more genteel time (or an imagined one) in a social sense, but it’s one that skirts the generally nauseating “good old days” syndrome by simply finding that world within the one they—and we—inhabit.

In the case of Damsels in Distress, the created world is Seven Oaks University, which has all the earmarks of being one of those expensive schools for not very bright people. At the very least, most of the students we meet are either dim or on the deluded side. And the little we see of the faculty (very little, in fact) doesn’t make them seem much better. The film’s main focus are the distressed damsels of the title—Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and their newest addition, Lily (Analeigh Tipton). The cause of their distress (at least according to the main titles) are the males at the school, who they—or, more correctly, their ringleader Violet—have set out to reform. Lily serves the function of being the character we can most relate to, because she’s as baffled by what she encounters as the viewer is apt to be. That, however, only goes so far, since she turns out to be no less peculiar than the others—just not in quite the same ways. In that regard, Stillman seems to suggest that perhaps we’re not that much different ourselves.

Violet is out to change the world—starting with the school. Her ultimate ambition is to make her mark by creating an international dance craze as big as the waltz, the Charleston or the twist. In the meantime, she settles for operating—with her posse, of course—the school’s suicide prevention center (free doughnuts for the suicidally depressed), making the world a better-smelling place by increasing the male hygiene of the school, and by dating guys dumber than herself. The idea of that last is to try to elevate her charges. Truth to tell, there’s more than a little evidence that the young men could stand some elevation, but whether Violet is likely to supply it is a separate question. What makes this work is that Violet’s approaches and ideas are presented as absurd, and she is most certainly absurd, but her motives are good and Stillman never makes sport of those—or, when all is said and done, of anyone’s motives.

Some will complain that the film has no story, and in the traditional sense that’s true. Essentially, we just spend 90 minutes with these slightly preposterous characters, but there’s a lot to savor along the way. The dialogue is invariably clever—and more often than not has more to say than it might at first seem. The characters are rich and ultimately pretty complex. And the ending—or the untraditional wrap-up that serves as one—is a joy to behold. The film’s great strength lies in the very fact that it’s not going to please everyone, and has no interest in doing so. This is clearly the movie that Stillman wanted to make, and these days that’s pretty rare. That it’s also such a good-hearted, delightfully quirky film with an intelligent vibe is even rarer. That the film is so cleverly civilized that it can discuss a crackpot religion where anal sex is the only form of nonprocreative intercourse allowed, and yet still retain its PG-13 rating … well, that’s probably unique. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content including some sexual material.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

29 thoughts on “Damsels in Distress

  1. Xanadon't

    Wow, the trailer really isn’t doing much to sell me on this film. But the proposition of discovering a promising new (to me at least) voice in Stillman paired with your review is enough to send me out on a limb.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’ll be interested to see how you feel. The trailer seems to me to pretty well represent the film, but I only saw the trailer after the fact so I may be filling in the blanks by knowing the whole picture.

  3. Xanadon't

    This is a really smart film from its surface down to its core. So few indie films of this kind bother to put in the work required to achieve the quirk and intelligence that this one exudes.

    The Rushmore comparison is a good starting point, but from there I’m not sure how exactly to describe it… Jane Austen updated for the 21st century comes to mind. But really this movie’s identity and methods are very much its own. And there’s such a welcome youthful exuberance going on that pairs really well with its hints of cynicism. Glad I hurried out to see it!

  4. Ken Hanke

    I am very heartened to read this response, since what I’ve mostly gotten was one piece of hate mail for having recommended it and stories of people leaving saying that I sure missed the boat on this one.

  5. Xanadon't

    I’m trying to imagine the movie not working for certain people. And I can almost see it. But then, everything else to one side, there’s still the fact that the movie is so damn funny! So, no. I don’t understand that response.

    I’m reminded of watching the trailer for Brick (2005) and writing it off as a gimmicky, overly impressed with itself movie that I had no interested in seeing -only to be shocked when I finally sat down with it years later. In both cases once I was orientated to the movie’s universe and the characters and language that populate it they became truly fun and satisfying movie-watching experiences.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I’d say it has something to do with the ending (which if you know your Fred Astaire filmography is even more apt). I can see that not satisfying quite a few people. Problem is, the most angry of the viewers never got that far!

    I never saw a trailer for Brick. I’d heard a little about it, but mostly Justin just kind of sprang it on me, if memory serves. My initial response was, “I’d like high school students a lot more if they really did talk like this.”

  7. Ken Hanke

    Heads up to the interested — this will be gone come Friday.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Did you know that a good smelling environment is crucial to our overall sense of well-being?

  9. Ken Hanke

    I don’t like the term depressed. I prefer to say that I’m in a tailspin.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Poor Lily. Just think of all Xavier put her through. He just used her body — and not even the right side.

  11. Ken Hanke

    What concerns me is if they can’t even destroy themselves how can they teach America’s youth?

  12. Edwin Arnaudin

    There’s enough material here for a lifetime of social work.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I’m from London. I was there and now I’m here. I’m from London.

  14. Edwin Arnaudin

    I’m sorry, the girl from school was Lucy Wurlitzer, not Emily Tweeter.

  15. Ken Hanke

    No, none of the effective anti-suicide treatments involve vomiting.

  16. Me

    Just caught up with this one and i loved it. Its a lot more funny than his previous films but that’s not to say the other films aren’t really great, the only one i haven’t seen is Barcelona.

    I would compare it to something like Kicking and Screaming instead of Rushmore.

    I couldn’t believe it when half way through the film i realized Jimbo was “Dukie”.

  17. Ken Hanke

    Its a lot more funny than his previous films but that’s not to say the other films aren’t really great, the only one i haven’t seen is Barcelona.

    And I still need to see any of the others, but since I just shelled out a young fortune on Leos Carax movies after watching Holy Motors, it’ll have to wait.

    I would compare it to something like Kicking and Screaming instead of Rushmore.

    I’m guessing you don’t mean the Will Ferrell movie, but rather the Noah Baumbach one. I haven’t seen it, but everything of his I’ve seen that didn’t involve Wes Anderson has made me feel mildly suicidal.

    I couldn’t believe it when half way through the film i realized Jimbo was “Dukie”.

    There may be people out here who have no idea who Dukie is. I’m one of them.

  18. Xanadon't

    I would compare it to something like Kicking and Screaming instead of Rushmore.

    I see usefulness in both comparisons. Though of the three films, Kicking and Screaming is easily my least favorite. (Though I suspect if I first encountered it 10 years ago rather than 10 months ago I’d have a tougher time with that claim.) Still, the Raymond Carver reference in Kicking and Screaming earns it automatic points with me.

    There may be people out here who have no idea who Dukie is. I’m one of them.

    As am I. I’m guessing TV.

  19. Me

    I did a search to see if it had been compared elsewhere and apparently the famous New Beverley Theatre ran them as a double feature this past summer.

    Ken you should check Kicking and Screaming out its not depressing at all its one of the funniest films i think of the 90′s. Im a sucker for Chris Eigeman he just cracks me up, he had supporting roles in the films of Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach in the 90′s. You should check Whit Stillmans early films out too especially Metropolitan i think you would enjoy them both.

    Kicking and Screaming
    http://youtu.be/DTXU2pMEZeA

    Metropolitan
    http://youtu.be/BvlyDMzwAB4

    Yeah Jimbo was Dukie one of the most heartbreaking characters from The Wire.

  20. Ken Hanke

    I did a search to see if it had been compared elsewhere and apparently the famous New Beverley Theatre ran them as a double feature this past summer

    I was quite willing to accept the concept of your comparison without famous back-up.

    You should check Whit Stillmans early films out too especially Metropolitan i think you would enjoy them both.

    I believe Chip Kaufmann is loaning them to me.

    Yeah Jimbo was Dukie one of the most heartbreaking characters from The Wire.

    I somehow didn’t think you were referring to Duke Mitchell in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

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