by Michelle McGlynn
As regurgitated plot lines and dismal sequels increasingly become the norm in the genre of comedy films, it is a delight to find a unique, intelligent and well-written comedy grace our screens. Following a fourteen-year absence, director Whit Stillman returns in top form with Damsels in Distress.
The damsels of the title are a group of young women attending Seven Oaks College. The males who attend Seven Oaks are identified as their distress in the opening credits. This particular group of girls fancy themselves social philanthropists. They run the college’s suicide prevention centre, providing coffee, donuts and dance classes to those who are feeling down or depressed. The damsels take it upon themselves to civilise the Neanderthal frat boys at Seven Oaks. They are led by overly assured Violet (Greta Gerwig). Violet is joined by her faithful followers Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who is vigilant in her watch for boys deemed “playboys and operators”, and oh-so-dim Heather (Carrie MacLemore). The trio recruit new student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) to their group, although Lily remains ambivalent towards her new friends. Damsels in Distress follows these young ladies on their crusade to tame the men of Seven Oaks and to begin a new worldwide dance craze.
This anachronistic comedy works perfectly in the hands of Stillman who returns to the subject he is most interested in, privileged post-adolescents capable of spending too much time finding themselves and pondering life. Stillman chooses to represent a reality that eliminates the elements that perhaps he feels we would be better off without. Damsels in Distress is a film that does not feel the need to meet a quota of pop culture references, while the appearance of newer technology and social networking is virtually non-existent. The damsels instead are driven by more traditional ideals. Perhaps the most refreshing detail of this film is the dialogue. It is a delight to hear a young cast speak in full, coherent sentences that are intelligent, witty and free from profanity, acronyms and the word “like”.
Damsels in Distress is packed full of absurd humour which is handled by a talented and capable cast. The film jumps from intelligent wit to the utterly ridiculous and does this transition with admirable ease. The damsels provide as much of the comedy as their unwashed, uneducated counterparts. The bizarre logic behind their thinking is wonderful. For example, Violet’s belief that the Roman letter fraternity system in Seven Oaks cannot be considered elitist based on the fact that the members are “morons”. Some of the more absurd moments of the film would likely come across as juvenile or inane when explained here, but in the context of the film it is hilarious. I bet when you see a rainbow after watching this it will at the very least raise a smile.
Stillman’s script required a certain cast and it would seem that he found just that in this talented group of young actors. Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen both make lasting impressions during their short time on screen as the hopeless “doufi”.
Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke balance the background status of their characters in relation to queen bee Violet, but never lose the focus of the audience. Echikunwoke’s clipped British accent and constant references to boys as “playboys and operators” and MacLemore’s argument regarding the pronunciation of Zorro and Xavier are two highlights.
Analeigh Tipton makes her way through Seven Oaks much the same as the audience does. Tipton never loses her ambivalence and it is clear that she understands the absurdity of what is going on around her. However, it is clear that she cares for her new friends and recognises that they mean well.
Without a doubt, the marvelous Greta Gerwig makes this film. It is clear to see why Gerwig is fast becoming a favourite in the industry. The character of Violet could not have been cast any better. Gerwig has already worked with Woody Allen (To Rome With Love) and Noah Baumbach (Greenberg). Her comedic timing and the way she delivers her lines are flawless. She plays Violet, a paradoxical character with apparent ease. Gerwig is a joy to watch.
If you were not a fan of Whit Stillman’s films to date, then this film is not going to convert you. For everyone else, fans and those unfamiliar alike, this film is an intelligent and hilarious gem.