Film review: Damsels in Distress

Damsels in Distress
2011
Westerly Films

STARRING Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Hugo Becker, Ryan Metcalf
WRITTEN BY Whit Stillman
PRODUCED BY Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer
DIRECTED BY Whit Stillman

SHOT BY Doug Emmett
EDITED BY Andrew Hafitz
MUSIC BY Mark Suozzo
DISTRIBUTED BY Sony Pictures Classics

Screened 2012-02-24

“Precious Moments”

Greta Gerwig stars as one of Whit Stillman’s collegiate Flower Girls: Violet alongside Rose, Heather and Lily. When Violent isn’t espousing laminated high-minded rhetoric, she and her Future Uhb Club run an extracurricular Suicide Prevention Center whose simple-pleasure coping suggestions are clearly near to Stillman’s heart: coffee, donuts (Dunkin), pop music and dancing (in this case, tap). Like each of Stillman’s other films: any plot is loosely defined; the story seems to extend over about a year of personal growth; narrative beats fall on interpersonal revelations; and all character action centers on alternating eyelines and lovelines within sets. Each Flower Girl – except for the black one – has a romance which distresses her, and which she patiently, eloquently attempts to verbally work out for our amusement. And in Stillman fashion there is a Chris Eigemann-typed character played by Adam Brody, a sort of amoral wild card who knowingly deceives his adorably earnest contemporaries, yet somehow remains friendly with them. Unfortunately it is not Chris Eigemann, but Adam Brody does fine work. Did I already say Gerwig was fantastic? Maybe it goes without saying. She’s fantastic.

Violet, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte content their collective righteousness by engaging in “Youth Outreach” which involves condescending to mingle with dimensionless frat boys – some of which are so dumb they do not “know colors” – mostly for the purpose of improving the school’s olfactory misdemeanors. Violet dates one such frat boy, partly to avoid the perils (hitherto mused on by Stillman) that come with dating a person who is “too attractive.” After this frat boy is caught in flagrante delicto with a potential new Flower, Violet tailspins, pouts, and becomes the customer at her own shop. Violet’s recovery starts when she becomes infatuated with the magical scent in a cheap motel soap bar and falls for the town liar. (Hm, in The Last Days of Disco Sevigny’s character also became depressed, then bounced between the liar and the mentally unstable character. Interesting.) Despair is finally trounced when Violet achieves her lifelong ambition (one I sense that Stillman shares) of starting an international dance craze. Be sure to say it the way Violet does, with ample enunciation: “International Dance Craze.” Like it’s sprinkled with fairy dust.

It’s hard to say exactly what this film is ‘about,’ and usually with Stillman this is not an issue. His output in the 90s chronicled the reactions of those maturing into adulthood, step by step – characters who are extraordinarily perceptive yet charmingly blind, and always well-spoken. Damsels, though, feels like it could’ve been the first script Whit wrote, one that sat on his shelf all this time and which he’s finally decided to make manifest. One feels a significant lack of meat; at 98 minutes it is quite loose, fluffy, insignificant – easily Stillman’s #4 – awkwardly paced, filled with strained silent moments, and, I’d say, far too reliant on the viewer’s adoration of Damsel Cuteness. Of course they’re cute, they’re cute as hell. I will not, cannot deny it. Creations of this sort could tempt you to admire Stillman’s ingenuity, but I am beginning to wonder if he merely likes penning cute characters a little too much. From the film’s opening moments I was instantly reminded of, actually, Wes Anderson and his meticulous cuteness, and I found myself pondering that maybe Stillman’s hiatus resulted from impotence caused by the proliferation of the adorable hipster bastard children that swarmed like bedbugs in the early Aughts (I’m sure that’s not the case). The mannered, elaborate dialogue was believable in the previous films because we had a sense that it came from over-educated, esoteric cliques. Here it feels considerably more cartoonish, emphasized by the lack of dimension to certain characters and the essentially broad-stroke-palette of the digital photography. Stillman clearly loves people, people-watching, and actors, and much (if not all) of the humor in his films comes from the viewer taking pleasure in watching a character be utterly caught up in her own drama. She stares forward, as so many of us do, taking her life oh-so-seriously, and the viewer can only imagine the shape of her inner emotional tumult. Like any pleasing work of art it is reliant on the viewer’s inference; Stillman is not daft enough to tell us what to think. Except, that is, when he thrice flatters the video distributor Criterion for their star treatment of his work. That you can’t miss.

written by David Ashley

Links:
Film’s site
Trailer
My interview participation with Greta Gerwig

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