Damsels in Distress – Film Review

Director: Whit Stillman

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Carrie Maclemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Analeigh Tipton, Adam Brody and Hugo Becker

Distributor: Sony Pictures

Whit Stillman is a director with a limited portfolio but a considerable reputation. In his previous films, he is noted for his ability to create worlds, and this is a trait that he similarly applies to Damsels in Distress. Taking place on a college campus, the outside world barely intrudes at all on the main characters lives. And, despite the fact that it deals with topics such as heartbreak and suicide, it is one of the most lighthearted and endearing films of the year.

It focuses on the characters of Violet, Heather and Rose, three students at Seven Oaks college that have taken it upon themselves to improve the lives of their fellow students through the use of soap, dance and unorthodox dating advice (such as dating someone less attractive than you to raise your self esteem).

This trio of do-gooders take new student Lily under their wing, in order to educate her in the ways of life around the campus, purely in her own interests, naturally. Lily is an element of normalcy in this surreal world, which allows us a way to relate to these social oddities. And while one can feel somewhat disconnected to these characters, they are nonetheless relentlessly quirky and entertaining.

To say that the dialogue of the film is witty simply does not do it justice. Films set in high schools or colleges have a tendency to veer towards the vulgar at some point or other. Yet, this remains consistently sophisticated, intelligent and charming, even when discussing acts of alternative sexual relations. The film casually expels top quality one liners at a steady rate, integrating them seamlessly into regular conversations with perfect precision.

Greta Gerwig in particular hands in one of the most unique and luminous performances seen in cinema in quite some time. Her relentless efforts to assist her colleagues is bizarrely coupled with a sterilized and analytical attitude. When displaying concern, she plasters a robotic smile across her face and always exhibits a blunt, though often hilarious, honesty.

 

Her two followers also bear their own amusing quirks that make them more interesting side characters than many other films main characters. Heather is the token ‘stupid’ girl of the group, but she doesn’t fall into that predictable stereotype. She initiates a relationship with Thor, a kindred spirit who cannot identify different colours, but isn’t colour blind. And Rose sports a strong English accent that accentuates her disdain for immature men and flirting tactics.

The girls appear to analyze college life from a detached perspective, and yet they ironically find themselves falling prey to typical college life problems, relationships in particular. Rather than resolving these issues via much venting and anger however, they solve them in an almost mathematical way which is absolutely absurd in it’s logistics. Greta ultimate goal is to improve the quality of all life…by starting a new dance craze.

If the film has a flaw at all, it might be said that it meaders a bit. Rather than telling an individual and conventional story, it seems far happier to examine a wide variety of minor issues and ponder them with bemusement (such as the correct plural term for the word ‘doofus’).

 

However, when handled with such professionalism, this is hardly an issue worth mentioning. The world that Stillman creates is delightfully quirky without ever feeling forced. The girls are an absolute delight to watch, and are supplemented with a legion of minor, but no less interesting characters. Among these, a personal favorite, is the clinically depressed ‘Freak’ (his actual name), with a passion for tap dancing.

Damsels in Distress is a truly triumphant comeback for its director. Chock full of incredible performances and witty dialogue, it is one of the funniest and most intelligent films to be released this year. An instant classic.

Score: 5/5

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