Dir. Whit Stillman, USA, 2011, 98 mins
Review by Colin Dibben
Three posh girls wage war on frat boy boorishness and student despair in this pretty smart, very witty and extremely likeable US college comedy. It’s a welcome return for writer-director Whit Stillman, thirteen years after The Last Days of Disco.
East Coast college girls Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) are on a mission to improve the lot of their fellow students. Their gentle war is waged with three tactics: lending a sympathetic ear, promoting better personal hygiene and getting those in need to tap dance.
The girls spot a lost-looking Lily (Analeigh Tipton) at a New Student Orientation session and decide to take her under their wing, showing her what life is and should be like at Seven Oaks College. Of course, soon Violet and Lily are entangled with men and in danger of starting a damaging internecine conflict …
The film is packed with precocious characters spouting exaggerated ideas and opinions, delivered with dry irony – Violet leads the way in this regard. But Violet, who gives the film its centre and direction, is also prone to despair – or ‘tailspin’ as she insists on calling it. Greta Gerwig’s performance is beautifully deadpan, reminiscent of mid-90s Chloe Sevigny, but the warm heart of her character shines through. There’s a brilliant scene in a diner: Violet is explaining the mood-lifting power of scent to customers – it’s one of those perfect film moments when you want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Lily, Rose and Heather are also deftly performed and charming characters: Lily’s pout presages her rebellion; Rose’s over-correct pronunciation reflects her strict morals; Heather’s heart-melting, slightly troubled smile suggests her inner confusion. The boys in the film are also well-drawn: dense frat-boy Frank (Ryan Metcalf); suave, self-inventing Charlie (Adam Brody); and pretentious Xavier (Hugo Becker) who claims to be a Cathar so as to indulge in some mucky sex.
More Jane Austen than Animal House, some will find this film terribly middle class and snobby – but, essentially, that’s the film’s appeal. It definitely feels very different from your run-of-the-mill college comedy: the pacing is much slower, it is dialogue driven (and the dialogue is funny!) and the plot continues to develop before resolving itself more-or-less happily.
With its good humour, relative intelligence and mix of good-looking male and female actors, Damsels in Distress could well be the perfect 2012 film for dates/couples looking to avoid unnecessary tailspin.