Monday, November 12, 2012

Movie Review: Damsels in Distress (2011) Dir. Whit Stillman

Hey everybody let's do the sambola!

You probably think we’re frivolous, empty-headed, perfume-obsessed college coeds. You’re probably right. I often feel empty headed--
Violet picks up the “Prevention” from the Center’s sign from ground.
But we’re also trying to make a difference in people’s lives. And one way to do that is to prevent them from killing themselves.... Have you ever heard the expression, “Prevention is nine-tenths the cure?” Well, in the case of suicide, it’s actually ten-tenths.

Damsels in Distress by Whit Stillman

Rating 4 out of 5 stars

Damsels in Distress was chosen as the Blahblahblahgay 6th Best Film of 2012

Blurb: Damsels in Distress follows a trio of beautiful girls who set out to revolutionize life at a grungy East Coast College – the dynamic leader Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), principled Rose and sexy Heather. They welcome transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into their group which seeks to help severely depressed students with a program of good hygiene and musical dance numbers. The girls become romantically entangled with a series of men -- including slick Charlie (Adam Brody), dreamboat Xavier and the mad frat pack of Frank and Thor —who threaten the girls’ friendship and sanity.

Thoughts: A charming, witty and wonderful surprise, not least because Greta Gerwig can act. A little bizarre, not for everybody for sure but I had a wonderful time with Whit Stillman's flowers.

Damsels in Distress is quirky American independent cinema that borrows heavily from the mumblecore movement yet is more than a case of copycat cinema thanks to the unique voice of Whit Stillman. Writer/director Whit Stillman hadn't made a movie since The Last Days of Disco in 1998, cinema has changed dramatically since then, especially indie films and yet his obvious talent seems to have adapted easily, with the acknowledged assistance of Lena Dunham.

There are characters with hypersensitivity of the nasal passages, characters who are naively susceptible to all kinds of nonsense thrown their way and characters so stupid that they don't even know what colors are. It's all an exagerration, obviously, as the university of Damsels in Distress resides in a bizarre world inside Stillman's mind that he has allowed us access to for 99 minutes.

Greta Gerwig was a perfect fit for Stillman's Violet and she was surprisingly convincing in this dry role. Violet in turns juggles conflicting, contrasting character traits from one moment to the next, as her self belief waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows as others label her a life-saver or a joke, take advantage of her good nature and her attempts to help that occasionally hinder. She plays the role with such innocence and earnestness that the irritation you might ordinarily find with such a character is replaced with joy and hope.

More surprising for me is that Stillman is quoted as not knowing who she was before they started casting and assumed that as a pretty blonde girl she was going to read for the "bombshell Lily part." If I'd already seen Last Days of Disco I might have understood this stance, here is the director that cast Chloe Sevigny in the lead role in 1998, a woman that whilst uniquely beautiful (and a developing talent) isn't ever going to be a Hollywood directors first choice for leading lady. The same can be said (without the Vincent Gallo baggage, yet) for Greta Gerwig.

One weak point is that the timing and structure seem to be a little off; for a movie that is only 99 minutes it occasionally felt like it had been playing forever but there are so many marvellous laugh out loud moments and snippets of dialogue that you are won over and keep enjoying yourself despite wondering just how bizarre things can become. Such dialogue is a rare commodity in 21st century American cinema, with so much conversation simply serving as exposition or punctuation to a set piece.

The aspect that I was particularly enamoured of is that despite her at times questionable attitude it is the virtuous nature of Violet that triumphs, her goodness overcomes the bad things that surround or threaten to overcome her. The wholesome and sweet nature of the denouement is especially so because we know that in the reality outside of Stillman's mind this is not how life generally works but sometimes in the right circumstances hoping for good things to come to occasionally idiotic movie characters is something that can make a realist happy, even when they break in to a full blown musical dance number in a fountain.

All this and I haven't even mentioned the presence of the always excellent and always underused Adam Brody or the fun use of costume, for this I suggest visiting What Indie Nights? for her unique look at the movie.

The movie has no real direction or strong character objective, no traditional narrative arc that you might come to expect from Hollywood, it just follows these flowers around as they live their lives on campus in a series of anecdotal scenes. This "slice of life" trait that I love so much in more serious movies is blended with a surreal edge to create a movie that while not perfect is immensely enjoyable and will almost certainly provide extra pleasure on repeat viewings.

What's your favourite post-mumblecore movie? Are you a fan of Whit Stillman? What's your opinion of final scene musical dance numbers? Can a movie make you happy with an undeserved happy ending? Answer those questions or just discuss the review/movie in the comments below.

Reviews from some of my favourite bloggers:
The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World
Film Ha-Ha

Additional viewing:
The Dish and the Spoon
Clueless (yes that is the artwork of the always wonderful Alex Kittle from Film Forager and you can buy her art here)

Additional reading:
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Shoplifting From American Apparel by Tao Lin
All Families Are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland


  1. Toby, it's refreshing to hear a different take on a movie that I really enjoyed. I've seen a lot of people dismissing it or just hating it outright, which surprised me because I'm such a fan. I do love Whit Stillman, so I know that I'm biased, but there's still a lot to like.

    1. I think Film Ha Ha made the point that you need to get past the WTF factor with this movie quite early on. I imagine the haters didn't manage it or didn't finish it. This was my first Stillman but it won't be my last, I may be a fan from now on.

  2. Good to see this film getting a bit of attention (and cheers for the linkage) - still not really sure if I liked it or not, but certainly the kind of oddball once-off that deserves healthy discourse.

    I watched Metropolitan shortly after watching this, and it's worth checking out if you have an interest in some more Whit.

    1. I think Last Days will be the next one based on ease of finding but its good to know his others aren't just the messy experiments of a young film maker

      It was getting pretty heavy advertising when we were in Paris last month so i assume its going to get more attention now. The French seem to know about cinema for some reason.

  3. Great review! This is the only Whit Stillman film I've seen, but I enjoyed it overall. Despite the wonderful cast and several laugh out loud moments, a lot of the film fell flat. 3/5 for me. And that musical dance number was a bit too random. I like films that take a different approach, but that just threw me off.

    1. In many ways what you describe is the worst thing to find when watching a movie. It's uninteresting a lot of the time but you keep hoping that the highs will outweigh the bad and your time won't have been wasted. Bad comedies are often like this for me, like The Watch recently, I just hoped its potential would blossom out of the mediocre soil but instead I got a laugh every 15 minutes.

    2. Ha! "A laugh every 15 minutes" is about right. ;)