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Damsels in distress

By Philip Martin

This article was published May 4, 2012 at 2:24 a.m.


Heather (Carrie McLemore ) and her public-service boyfriend Thor (Billy Magnussen), who doesn’t know his colors, in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress.

— My closest friend told me she’d heard Whit Stillman on a radio program recently, explaining that there was no real mystery as to why he hadn’t made a film since The Last Days of Disco in 1998 - he’d simply “failed” to make several movies he’d wanted to make. That’s what happens, sometimes, even to wunderkinds with dazzling eyes,when they run up against the hard realities of the back half of show business.

But the agreeably quirky Damsels in Distress is the movie that Stillman finally did get made, and we can be glad that he did. It’s a delightful, anachronistic film that imagines how a typical 1980s college comedy such as Revenge of the Nerds, Back to School or Oxford Blues might play had it been co-written by Evelyn Waugh and Ronald Firbank (whose name is dropped in the script) and executive produced by Oscar Wilde. It’s old-fashioned and arch, and the title plays off the 1937 Fred Astaire musical, A Damsel in Distress, which was based on a comic novel by P.G. Wodehouse (whose epigrammatic style is also in evidence here).

It is somewhat goofier than the handful of movies that Stillman has heretofore made - it’s more frankly theatrical and mannered, and as such likely to confuse at least some of those who revere Stillman as the preppy chronicler of - to use the term he coined in Metropolitan - the “urban haute bourgeoisie.”

That class is still represented here, on the bucolic Greek Revival campus of Seven Oaks, in the persons of three extremely tidy, precise and above all nice-smelling young coeds - Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) - who quickly adopt a jeans-wearing newcomer Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into their clique, and proceed to attempt to make over in their own image, which is a retro style that borrows heavily from the Hepburns: Audrey and Katharine.

But these admittedly conceited and snobbish young ladies aren’t the mean girls you have been conditioned to expect. They’re actually radical do-gooders who suffer, with impressive dignity as they seek to make the world a better place, the acrid emanations of the boorish fraternity boys who surround them. To this end they run a suicide prevention center, where they helpfully suggest tap dancing as a hedge against depression. (Violet has ambitions for starting a worldwide dance craze - the Sambola!)

As a form of public service, they dedicate themselves to dating boorish young men in order to build their confidence so they might realize what little potential they have.

Yes, it’s the sort of thing that Wes Anderson might deride as “twee” and precious, but it’s also a charmingly deadpan movie with sparkling dialogue that will make you smile more than laugh, and which makes a reasonable case for observing propriety and behaving decently.

While you can fault Stillman’s plotting here - the movie unspools as a series of incidents - it’s clear that he loves his characters and is enamored of the actresses he’s working with. Gerwig, best known for her naturalistic “mumblecore” work, is brilliant as the surprisingly complicated head chick Violet, but all the female roles are little gems, with just a tinge of penumbral darkness around their glittering edges.

Damsels in Distress



Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Hugo Becker


Whit Stillman


PG-13, for mature thematic content including some sexual material

Running time:

99 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 05/04/2012

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