Before I start let me say that I had the worst seat three rows from the front while watching “Damsels In Distress”. I seriously do not know how people can watch and enjoy a film so close to the screen, it is torture.
Anyway, “Damsels In Distress” is Whit Stillman’s new film and his first in thirteen years since his previous “The Last Days Of Disco”. This is actually my first film from Stillman that I have seen and I have to say that it was delightful and quirky, it was delightfully quirky.
The film is about four friends Violet, Heather, Rose and Lily, who live on campus at a co-ed college. Violet, who is the unofficial leader of the group, believes that it is up to them to make the less popular and moronic feel better about themselves. If she goes out dating looking for a man, she looks for the qualities mentioned above. The girls also run a “suicide prevention center” on campus that offers coffee and donuts to the (clinically) depressed, not to mention, putting on tap dancing shows to cheer them up. However when Violet herself becomes a victim of depression she starts to realize that her “head in the clouds” approach to the mental illness may need a reality check.
This is such a quirky and fun film with a wonderful central performance from Greta Gerwig as Violet. She just has a presence on camera that leads you to immediately fall in love with her (and not just with this film too). It is actually a hard role to pull off due to the film’s hyper stylization. She has the tough job of selling to us that Violet could actually believe that a bar of scented soap could really cure depression. I also really liked Analeigh Tipton’s performance as Lily, the newcomer to the group, who compared to the rest of the group actually seems more grounded and appears to live in the real world and thus often questions a lot of the girl’s and especially Violet’s eccentric ideas.
While I admit that Stillman’s script is at times brilliant with sharp and funny dialogue strewn throughout, I did have a few problems with the film and some of its quirks. The chapter titles seemed completely pointless to me and at times they even gave away aspects of the story before we had even viewed them. Also the broad and simple portrayal of the majority of the male characters seemed very silly causing them to come across as caricatures and never once feeling real. While a college graduate who cannot distinguish between colours may be a funny idea, it isn’t believable and comes across as a little dumb. The only male character that seems to come out looking alright is Adam Brody’s Fred Packenstacker. In fact, Brody gives a really great performance in this and after seeing him in a few things recently I am starting to realize that he is actually quite an impressive actor.
While the film has a lovely atmosphere and is easy to enjoy, I also believe that it is a bit messy. It attacks subjects in a kind of scattershot kind of way, with issues never really building or organically grown, they just sort of happen without any rhyme or reason, and then they leave just as quickly as they appeared. Still I suppose any film that can combine depression, suicide, anal penetration, the medical abilities of soap and the healing nature of tap dancing and turn it into some sort of cohesive whole and make it funny and entertaining, must have something going for it. Despite its flaws, “Damsels In Distress” is very much worth seeing and it is actually a lot more intelligent than you would think upon first glance.