Movie Review: Damsels in Distress (2011)

Seen: On my laptop, from a file on my harddrive. On a bus.

Last week I took a day trip to New York to visit the MoMA archives, putting the final touches on my MA thesis. I wasn’t feeling great during the dual 4-hour bus rides but did manage to watch Damsels in Distress in parts there and back, which was a delightful choice. My first Whit Stillman movie (Sasha will be proud), it traces the experiences of four lady friends attending college together, all privileged, self-absorbed, and not as smart as they think they are. Violet (Greta Gerwig) longs to help the less fortunate, primarily the unfortunately moronic frat boys at school, and dreams of starting an international dance craze. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is vain and opinionated, and follows along half-heartedly with Violet’s schemes. Heather (Carrie MacLemore) is a well-meaning airhead whose boyfriend might be the dumbest person. Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a new arrival to the group, calls out their patronizing and at-times backwards approach to do-gooding but is certainly no saint herself.

Nearly plot-less and broken up into titled segments of uneven length, Damsels in Distress is a marvelously entertaining but slightly disjointed glimpse into the lives of some ridiculous young women. They’re well-dressed, well-spoken, and perilously erudite, while also managing to be some of the least self-aware characters ever written. The dialogue is hilarious, a combination of weird juxtapositions and comedically shallow observations, all communicated with good vocabulary and a false sense of superiority. The cast is excellent, with Gerwig shining as usual but nearly matched by Megan Echikunwoke’s exceptional haughty expression. Gerwig manages to be tragically buffoonish and genuinely sympathetic in the role of Violet, but maybe I’m just not over my Frances Ha crush. If I’m being honest, the secret star is kind of Billy Magnussen as frat boy Thor. I mean, he doesn’t know his colors, he just never learned them. Bt that’s why he’s in college, he’s gonna hit the books! He’s so convincing as this doofy moron and ultimately stands out as the funniest character because he’s the most ludicrous.

As much as I enjoyed the script and performances, Damsels in Distress was just a little too unstructured for me to be wholly engaged. It felt like Whitman wanted to tell a comprehensive story but also wanted to share these vaguely connected episodes, and I think it should have been one or the other. There are a lot of subplots that are dropped and picked up willy-nilly, and it’s a little disconcerting. Then again maybe that’s Whitman’s thing and I can’t really criticize a filmmaker establishing a certain style of storytelling. My biggest frustration was Lily’s snobby love interest Xavier- I really didn’t care about their scenes, they weren’t as funny or interesting as the rest of the film. Couldn’t we have more of Adam Brody’s kooky “playboy”? Luckily the film ends with an adorable classic musical number, so any negative feelings I might have had were washed away by the sambola.


Pair This Movie With: Hmm… silly but lovable ladies being best friends and talking about clothes and boys and helping the less fortunate? HELLO CLUELESS.

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