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Damsels in Distress (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Damsels in Distress

Damsels in Distress


Starring Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Adam Brody, Hugo Becker, Ryan Metcalf, Billy Magnussen, Jermaine Crawford, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Zach Woods, Aubrey Plaza and Taylor Nichols.

Screenplay by Whit Stillman.

Directed by Whit Stillman.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.  99 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Damsels in Distress is a college comedy, so you know what that means: tap-dancing for suicide prevention, soap and personal hygiene, settling, depression, donuts, excessive self-criticism, lying and the tireless search for an international dance craze.

Oh, sure, if you are looking for wild keggers, hacky sacks and dumb frat guys, they are here too.

It’s been almost fourteen years since his last film, The Last Days of Disco, but, God, it’s good to be back in Whit Stillman’s world.

In the 90s, Stillman was one of the smartest and most intriguing comic voices in indie filmmaking.  He first showed his drolly intelligent, good-hearted and just slightly self-absorbed debutante characters in the micro-small budget Metropolitan.  He got a bigger budget and gorgeous scenery in his next film Barcelona, about a couple of American guys living in Spain.  He also wrote and directed a heart-breaking episode of the acclaimed TV series Homicide: Life on the Street about grief counselling, which guest-starred Rosanna Arquette, Polly Holliday and his regular star Chris Eigeman.

His 1998 film The Last Days of Disco looked to be his breakout, a time machine back to New York in the late 70s where smart young professionals spent their nights drinking and dancing in clubs.  He had a cast full of hip young actors including Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, Jennifer Beals and Robert Sean Leonard.  The movie was released to universal acclaim and actually became a fairly big hit as far as art house films go.

And then Stillman just disappeared from the scene.

Well, not exactly, Stillman became involved in publishing, did some teaching, raised two daughters, moved to Europe and worked on follow-up scripts that never quite seemed to get produced.  He even appeared in Spanish director Fernando Trueba’s film Sal gorda.  Still, fans waited around for a follow-up as Disco‘s release date faded deeper and deeper into the past.

Finally, that long-awaited follow-up is hitting the theaters.  In many ways it is unlike anything Stillman has ever done before – it is brighter, quirkier, broader and dreamier than the writer has been before.

And yet, once you start to listen to the smart and subtly funny dialogue, you know it could be no one else.  Stillman writes dialogue like a younger, WASPier Woody Allen.  It might seem a bit self-absorbed if not for the fact that it is so brilliantly clever and also gamely self critical.  There is no other filmmaker who can judge a character because of her naiveté towards artichokes.  Yet, there is another character who is quick to judge others, but quicker to judge herself – and in some strange way she becomes the conscience of the movie.  Yes, she is trying to force changes on people, but she does it in such a pleasant and open manner that she almost makes her eccentricity charming.

The story – because, yes, you do need one of those – has a young girl named Lily (Analeigh Tipton of Crazy. Stupid. Love. and Hung) transferring to a Seven Oaks University and falling under the spell of the queen bees of the college.  They are Virginia (Greta Gerwig of Greenberg), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke of The 4400) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore).

These girls have made it their mission to clean up their campus, mostly by literally cleaning the frat boys (handing out soap) and fighting campus suicides by a mixture of counseling and musical theater.

Virginia is a breakout role for Gerwig – who already had a breakout role just two years ago with Greenberg.  Virginia rules her little clique, dispensing dating and hygiene advice with aplomb and an odd common sense.  She feels that music can cure depression and that the creation of an international dance craze is the highest form of human accomplishment.  She makes her character so unapologetically odd and yet strangely romantic and giving and always willing – sometimes too willing – to be harder on herself than anyone else.

Of course, it’s a musical romantic comedy, so there are a bunch of guys sliding in and out of the girls’ lives and complicating their best-laid plans.  Also, their is quite a bit of incisive and clever humor at the expense of academia, but it is done with love and good humor.

The film ends a tiny bit unevenly, but even then it is charming in its ungainliness.  It’s like they hit a cross in the road, weren’t quite sure how to end the film, and then tacked on two musical numbers to be a rousing, but slightly perplexing finale.

However, somehow even this awkward climax fits with Stillman’s warped world view.  Sometimes, you don’t need an ending, all the world really needs is to dance.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2012 All rights reserved. Posted: April 5, 2012.

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