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Damsels in Distress

Theatrical Review

Sony Pictures Classics; 99 minutes

Director: Whit Stillman

Written by on April 6, 2012 

Filmmaker Whit Stillman has made a mere 4 movies over the span of 23 years, his first three films grossing less than $15 million combined. His style of writing is abrasive for many, as is his sophiscated, sarcastic and self-deprecating sense of humor. That said, his third film, Last Days of Disco, offered a measure of hope and joy not present in his first two films, allowing for a slightly larger viewership during and after its theatrical run.

Thirteen years later, with Damsels in Distress, Stillman has grown softer still, as so many great filmmakers do (I’m looking at you Scorsese). Not that this is a bad thing. In fact, the versatile tones – both in drama and comedy – at play here mark a step forward in many ways for Stillman as both a writer and director.

The setting is Seven Oaks, a New England college that’s still suffering from a testerone-fused attitude towards college life. Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her group of small-time revolutionaries are determined to change this. Preferably through dance. Violet’s band of non-misfits is comprised of the mind-numbingly principled Heather (Carrie MacLemore), the judgmental Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and the sweet and sensitive Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student the girls take under their collective wings.

These girls go to frat parties and get the drunkards dancing, Violet convinced that she can choose a loutish frog to date and mold him into her prince. While the rest of the group isn’t so sure, Violet’s positioned herself as the clear leader, so her way goes. Then, of course, things begin to change.

Lily becomes smitten after she’s bought a drink at a bar by a charming, well-dressed financial type (Adam Brody), straying from the group’s warnings – especially Rose – that it’s a “playboy or operator move.” Violet’s dope boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) betrays her, sending her into what she prefers to call a “spiral.”

Like the Stillman of past films, this is mostly played for intelligent comedy, many scenes playing out a bit too long and over-explained on purpose. This group of young performers is more than up to the challenge, speaking the singular filmmaker’s language fluidly throughout. Gerwig is the stand-out here, navigating the most dynamic character in the film with grace. And while Violet’s vast descension is hard to grasp on to in places – some scenes play better than others – Gerwig is fully committed to every turn her character takes. This is a more fragile, more understanding version of Kate Beckinsale’s Alice from Disco, and though Stillman’s reach exceeds his grasp in her development, it’s an important step in Gerwig’s blossoming career as a top-notch actress.

It’s also an important step for Stillman, the filmmaker. The camera moves more, and more fluidly, in this film then in Stillman’s films past, and there appears to be more confidence behind each move. The director’s studying his character’s faces and mannerisms more here than he ever has before, and it helps bring the viewer further into the experience. This auteur of the upper echelon has grown to judge those in his films less for who they are, and appreciate them more for the exact same reason.

This kind of honestly only heightens our appreciation.

Damsels in Distress is now in limited release.


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