Review - Damsels in Distress


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  • Damsels in Distress
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  • Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman makes a much belated return with this classy comedy
Damsels In Distress (2012)
Whit Stillman
Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton
Release Date:
Age Rating:
In a timeless American University, three well meaning girls try to fix the problems they see in their environment – suicide, depression, low moral standards and even poor personal hygiene. With mixed results.

Damsels in Distress marks the return of filmmaker Whit Stillman to the movie-making fold. Feted for a trio of wordy comedy/dramas in the 90s – Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco – he’s been absent for more than a decade since. You can read more about that hiatus in our massive interview and feature but is Damsels a triumphant return?

To a degree, yes. The rather grounded movie world of Disco and semi-real settings of Metropolitan and Barcelona have been done away with here and this surreal quality, coupled with Stillman’s proven ability to craft impeccably oblique dialogue, makes for a unique feel that should ably satisfy fans while also drawing in new admirers.

The new tone makes Damsels perhaps Stillman’s most fluid film yet, with the hyper-real quality allowing some interesting stylistic choices to sit more comfortably than the sometimes forced eloquence of earlier efforts. It really is a charming production, which builds towards a fantasy-ish finale that you’ll find hard to resist.

Stillman again proves a canny at both casting and pulling performances from his stars. You may balk at the inclusion of frequent indie darling Greta Gerwig but she’s a delight on screen as Violet – carefully straddling the line between insufferable snobbery and a naïve optimism which makes her impossible to hate. It’s Gerwig’s show for the most part, despite frequent asides for Analeigh Tipton(who you may recognise from Crazy Stupid Love). Violet’s minions Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) do clueless and English well enough to keep all eyes on Gerwig.

The male roles are a little more complicated – mainly because Stillman goes out of his way to make it clear they are universally morons, liars, or both. Adam Brody comes closest to resembling an actual human being but doesn’t seem to quite fit – partly because he’s clearly well into his 30s.

Stillman defies his small budget with a competent aesthetic, the outdoor scenes in particular softened and distanced that bit further from reality by soft focus and warm tones courtesy of cinematographer Doug Emmett and, I suspect, some considerable grading in post production. Elements like the pink titles and a breezy musical score help to reinforce the controlled fantasy of the piece while Stillman indulges one of his passions by attempting to teach the audience to dance in a particularly enjoyable moment.

As with all of his films, there remains something fundamentally niche about Whit Stillman’s output. Some audience members will find his dialogue too wordy and his conversations too meandering and strange to get on board with his characters. Without a doubt, Damsels in Distress sees the director at his most accessible – the lines played more obviously for laughs than in his previous efforts. But it’s still far removed from anything resembling a mainstream comedy – and some would say therein lies the appeal.

Damsels in Distress is a fundamentally charming film, with an entertaining central performance from Gerwig and a light tone which makes even its stylistic oddities seem perfectly acceptable. Doubtless some will find the meandering and incidental plot a little sparse and others simply won’t be able to get behind its pervasive oddness but for those with a hankering for quirky, funny and well performed indies – you won't find better this April.

7 Stars
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