(USA, 99 min.)
Written and directed by Whit Stillman
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Hugo Becker, Adam Brody.
It’s been fourteen years since Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco was released and he is back with a vengeance! Not a sign of wear is to be seen on Stillman’s latest pic, which is just as fresh, witty, and derisive as his last one. Exceptionally well-written and delivered by a quartet of dead-pan damsels, Damsels in Distress is a scathingly funny film.
The damsels are led by Violet, a laconic do-gooder played by Greta Gerwig with a blank stare and a terrific delusion of grandeur. She’s much like a modern day Hilly Holbrook, minus the poop pie. Violet wants to save the world by creating a new dance craze that unites the mopey masses in a large-scale euphoria of bodily movements and easy steps towards good vibes. In the mean-time, however, Violet runs a suicide prevention centre on the campus of Seven Oaks College. Along with her fellow damsels Rose and Heather, played by the hilarious duo of Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore, Violet helps suicidal or clinically depressed students by offering tap dancing lessons and some free donuts.
Violet explains her campus plans and earnest outlook to a new recruit named Lily, played by Analeigh Tipton (Crazy, Stupid, Love.). Lily recently transferred to Seven Oaks because, according to Violet, “she either failed out or was severely unhappy.” Note that Violet never bothers to ask which.
Lily and Violet start to clash when a boy takes interest in Lily. Whilst out with her friends at a bar, Charlie (Adam Brody) sends over a round of drinks. Lily feels a mixed sensation of flattery/distress and turns to her friends for help. Rose quickly judges these free drinks as a classic move that defines Charlie as a playboy or operator type, but Violet acknowledges that since drinks are expensive, the move is therefore gentlemanly. Regardless, the drinks lead to much tension, especially since Violet was recently dumped by her boyfriend and is finding herself in a tailspin.
Throughout Damsels in Distress, Stillman offers a clever satire on twentysomethings circa 2012. It’s a bit like The Last Days of Disco meets Mean Girls, except that the quartet of damsels all sport trendy pastels and sprout words that show their over-privileged, over-educated nature. The damsels also pretend to be far more sensitive than the teens of Lindsay Lohan’s clique, which is something that Stillman captures particularly well by having the damsels begin nearly every phrase, statement, or response with a dry, “yes.” Despite the onslaught of affirmatives, though, the college life of Damsels in Distress is ruled by semantic nitpicking, hyper-sensitivity, and an outlook on the world floored by book smarts and an overall ignorance to the realities of life.
With an upbeat score and some handsome cinematography by Doug Emmett, Damsels in Distress is deceptively light and fluffy. Stillman’s film also features some Frasier-ish title cards that accentuate the drollness of the damsels’ distress, and a random dance sequence just for the hell of it. It’s really the characterization, though, and the spot-on wit that will have you dancing whilst you exit the theatre.
Do I recommend Damsels in Distress? Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Damsels in Distress is currently playing at the Varsity in Toronto. It opens in Ottawa at The Bytowne on May 18 and plays at the Mayfair July 9, 11, and 12.
*Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics