Friday, April 13, 2012

Damsels in Distress: a very whimsical, light comedy

It's been over two years now since I first discovered her, but I really think I'm starting to fall in love with Greta Gerwig... as an actress, of course. There's something about her personality that just seems like a natural fit for indie comedy or drama. She's kinda like a less bitchy Parker Posey. Parker Posey was like in every indie film of the '90s, I can easily see Gerwig going down that same route. She practically already has. Her role as Violet Wister in "Damsels in Distress" is her at the peak of her powers (so far). Violet Wister is such an arrogant, pretentious, insane mess and Greta totally makes it work. There's an earnestness in Violet Wister, as if she truly believes every word that she says, that she becomes a likable character to me.

But Greta Gerwig's performance in Damsels is not the only story here and there are some great performances here from some fresh female faces: Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Carrie MacLemore. The four of them together seem to naturally click which is important to have in a Whit Stillman comedy.

Whit Stillman, that is who/what I was referring to in the beginning of my last sentence. This is Whit Stillman's first film since 1998 when he came out with the very underrated "Last Days of Disco." Whit Stillman has a very particular style: you either like it or you don't. I have become rather fond of his three '90s films with his first one, Metropolitan, being my favorite. Damsels in Distress doesn't come close to being his "best work," but it's a very welcome return for a unique and intelligent comic voice who has influenced filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach.

To briefly go over the plot: Violet Wister leads a group of girls at Seven Oaks University as they run a suicide prevention center to curb the amount of suicides that seems to occur entirely too often at the university. Violet thinks that the way to prevent suicide is through tap-dancing and she's also obsessed with coming up with a new dance craze.

I hope Damsels in Distress is the first of a number of films to come from Stillman because it's got a few cobwebs. His typical sense of humor is most definitely on display but a lot of the characters in this film, that aren't the main four girls, are too much caricatures and merely exist just for the laughs. It's not like he hasn't had that before, but the extreme stupidity displayed by some of the males at Seven Oaks University is almost too extreme. Sure, there are laughs to be had, but a lot of them feel cheap.

Still, Whit Stillman's sense of humor is definitely on full display here as there are plenty of great lines of dialogue and pretty much everyone in this film gets a moment to shine. I feel perhaps a little too much attention was paid on making this film feel as whimsical as possible, but for the most part, it works. All-in-all, one can't help but feel that this is kind of a bizarre comedy. It just feels completely out of place with other movies coming out today. I think a large part of that can be attributed to Whit Stillman's style and personally, I am glad he's back. There's a freshness to Damsels in Distress that hasn't been seen in quite some time. The comparisons to Woody Allen are apt, but Damsels shows that Whit Stillman is truly an original. Nobody else could've made a film like this, for better or worse.

So, again, I consider this film to be a return from Whit Stillman, but not quite a return to form. I'm hoping it is the first step of what should be even better films to come from the auteur. Damsels in Distress is definitely a good film, just not a great one. For what it's worth though, I had a smile on my face almost the entire time I was watching this film.

Grade: B

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