Eye For Film >> Movies >> Damsels In Distress (2011) Film Review
Damsels In Distress
Reviewed by: Sophie Monks Kaufman
“You can love someone whose mental capacity is not large… I know, I have,” says indie beauty Greta Gerwig with the solemnity of an elder imparting wisdom. This type of deadpan humour is at the heart of Whit Stillman’s first film in 13 years. Touchingly earnest, sublimely ridiculous and thrillingly profound, lines come zinging off the screen and into your eternal quote bank.
Damsels In Distress is ostensibly a campus comedy but to describe it that way would be like describing Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums “a family drama”. Anderson and Stillman are similar in as much as they create idiosyncratic meandering universes in which most characters are advocates for seeing things somewhat off centre. Lead advocate in DiD is Violet, the creator of a campus suicide prevention society and full-time self-appointed social worker. She and two identically motivated gal pals invite transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under their expansive wings giving her the opportunity to join them in their humanistic carryings on.
Some have criticised Damsels for Violet’s reductionist belief that dance and soap are the keys to tackling depression. Yet endorphins are kryptonite to negativity, and hygiene a social adhesive. Violet’s simple pragmatism is elevated to deeply touching levels by Gerwig’s performance. The compassion her character displayed in Greenberg, for a spiky Ben Stiller, is extended to literally anyone. She has a warm seriousness that makes her vocation as campus Mother Teresa plausible and charming. Stillman is smart enough not to let everyone fall under her spell. The function of Lily is to bluntly question Violet’s actions and by extension the film’s worldview and plot.
The plot is, in fact, a series of linked sub-plots in which characters stroll across a permanently sunny campus having witty, wordy, Wildean conversations about their romantic, social and moral concerns. There are no university lecturers or authority figures. At this university, the students are the teachers yet they themselves are constantly learning, figuring things out through earnest exchanges. This is a bubble world that doesn’t feel anchored to place or time.
While this can feel frustratingly abstract, what is truly laudable about Damsels is it doesn’t, like so many high school or college films, create a sexual division. Instead of showing female huntresses trying to seduce the hottest guys, the damsels’ aspirations are, in the words of Violet, “pretty basic…to take a guy who hasn’t realised his full potential, or doesn’t even have much, and then help him realise it”. With exception of “playboy or operator types ‘– a phrase uttered with pregnant suspicion by the splendid Megalyn Echikunwoke – the men are a good bunch, if a little confused. Violet’s male equivalent is played by Adam Brody, who plumbs unprecedented levels of deadpan sincerity to describe pre-adolescent feelings for a girl as ,“Big Doctor Zhivago stuff.”
“I don’t think that cool people are entirely inhuman, just enough to be cool,” ponders the ever-thoughtful Violet to Lily. With its contemplative base and decency-driven interactions, Damsels doesn’t have the sharp edges that define coolness but Stillman’s sharply written philosophical vision of how people relate is absolutely doused in humanity.Reviewed on: 15 May 2012