Review: Damsels In Distress (2011)

Three students – Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) – at Seven Oaks University College strive to eradicate the low standards and suicidal tendencies of their peers with a treatment course that includes doughnuts and impromptu dance numbers. When the trio welcome sophomore transfer Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into the fold, they must step up their efforts to ensure their new recruit doesn’t fall foul to the trials and tribulations of an asinine, male dominated campus.

Unconventional by nature, writer and director Whit Stillman’s fourth directorial effort – his first in eleven years –  is a sort of social commentary that doesn’t complicate itself with an elaborate narrative. Instead, it relies upon the characters episodic run-ins with weighty issues, such as depression, suicide, tyranny and self-deprication, offering a salient critique of society and the individuals from which it is comprised. Stillman does well to ensure the film doesn’t reach too far, keeping the script peppered with wit and welcomed diversions (sporadic dance numbers and a scene-stealing Aubrey Plaza, in particular) and directing with a wonderfully dream-like, fuzzy texture that makes the proceedings far more whimsical than the subject-matter leads you to believe.

It’s not an easy task to make a character as chauvinistic and erudite as Violet accessible, yet not uncomfortably familiar to audiences, but that’s exactly what Gerwig does. Known by most as the best new talent in the world of independent cinema, Gerwig shines under both Stillman’s direction and his way with words, delivering a respectful performance that not only draws intrigue and compassion from a difficult to like individual, but also re-establishes her indeterminate range as a comedic and dramatic actress.

In lesser roles, Echikunwoke, MacLemore and Tipton do well to convey their respective characters’ irksome personalities, embracing the slightly cartoonish manner in which they’re staged by Stillman. Tipton in particular, as the challenger to Violet’s preordained views, does well to embody an outsider’s scepticism when presented with an established trio’s enthusiastic, yet radical ideals. The male characters – played by Adam Brody, Ryan Metcalf and Hugo Becker – do well to attribute some humanity to their uncoloured and dopey roles, a particularly strong signifier to Stillman’s feelings towards a society ruled by “playboy operator types”, as Echikunwoke’s Rose repeatedly states.

Admittedly, Damsels In Distress is not a film that will strike a chord with all audience types. Stillman, despite this only being his fourth directorial effort, has an incredibly unique and off-kilter voice – one that certainly won’t fare well with those looking for a little more substance and slightly less idiosyncrasy. It’s the fact that his voice is so peculiar that makes his constructs so enjoyable, though. And, while there might not be a particular stand-out objective to the episodic structure, Damsels In Distress is the type of film that should be treasured and advocated, not tarnished for its minor hindrances.

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