Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman

BY Robert BellPublished Oct 4, 2012

Ever the incisor of a cultural fad or era, noted wordsmith Whit Stillman's first film in 12 years takes a decidedly manic approach to the subject of feminine intervention on male institutions. Ironically (or not) titled Damsels in Distress, his externalized inner-dialogue finds itself working through the an affluent East coast college with a Roman (not Greek) system to define and categorize its students. Newcomer Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is quickly embraced by a self-consciously philanthropic clique of elitist girls, led by the decidedly idiosyncratic Violet (Greta Gerwig), whose goal in life is to create a lasting dance craze. When not running an in-person suicide prevention program, wherein doughnuts and tap dancing are used to lift the spirits of the existentially despondent and melancholic, they date mediocre, pitiable boys in an effort to help them realize their full potential. Stillman's episodic approach to the material, while preoccupied with consistent colour and set design, is tonally erratic at best. Straight scenes of conversations are followed by musical numbers and hyper-realized comedy of exaggeration, such as characters literally chasing rainbows in an effort to learn all of the colours. While deliberate, the vacillating nature of the voice is ultimately hindered by his limited perspective on shot composition, leaving an abundance of editing faux pas and limited visual distinction between his varying tones and intentions. Still, his writing is what drives the story forward, as is the observation that the modern status quo is that of sanctimonious preaching and "help" for those perceived as less fortunate. Dialogue about moral and good people having larger posteriors, as well as lines like, "No, when having problems of your own, it's helpful to hear someone else's idiotic ones," are as hilarious as anything the NYC native has ever written. Even the eventual observation that we, as a society, dole out endless propaganda about the desirable nature of being an outsider, despite ultimately being a "normal" collective that finds difference to be a nuisance, has that satirical, simultaneously astute and playful edge the auteur is known for. Included with the DVD is a brief "Making of" that's about as congratulatory and superficial as they get. Even the "Damsels in Distress: Q &A" is hindered by the fact that it's hosted by Pete Hammond. Fortunately, there's a commentary track with Stillman and the cast, so we can learn about the many on-set happenings and the minor touches that went into making this movie what it is.

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