A metropolitan masterpiece that delights from beginning to end, writer-director Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress is utterly charming.
After a far-too-long hiatus from the big screen following 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, Stillman proves with Damsels that his ability to concoct quirky characters and exquisitely witty, articulate dialogue is as strong and impressive as ever.
The flick, starring indie darling Greta Gerwig, adorably eccentric former America’s Next Top Model contestant Analeigh Tipton and teen heartthrob Adam Brody, fuses whimsical Woody Allen-esque style with atypical college campus humor in a meticulously crafted, offbeat story of self-discovery.
Set at a fictional East Coast college, Damsels in Distress tells the tale of a dynamic trio of girls, led by the tenacious Violet (Gerwig), who sets out to cure the male-dominated student body of its low standards of living, boorish ways and foul odors.
The trio takes the naive and innocent new student Lily (Tipton) under its wing to guide her through the harrowing world of college and introduce her to the group’s crusade to rescue fellow students from their own self-destruction.
The girls’ philanthropic outlook on life manifests in their operation of the university’s “Suicide Center,” where they prescribe donuts, coffee and tap-dancing as remedies of distraction for severely depressed and suicidal students.
Gradually, Lily comes to accept Violet’s wacky ways as fact, especially Violet’s adamant belief that the key to thriving socially and romantically is to seek a significant other who is “frankly inferior” to oneself so that one may truly help their lesser counterpart realize their full potential.
Violet’s dogma, beliefs and entire calculated persona come crashing down, however, when her “not conventionally attractive,” dim-witted, frat-boy boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) cheats on her with another girl, forcing her into a self-described “tailspin” that makes her and her loyal followers re-evaluate everything they so confidently thought they knew about life, love and how to make it in contemporary society.
Though the plot might ostensibly seem like a cliché caricature of college life, the truly intelligent dialogue and delightfully idiosyncratic characters elevate the story beyond conventional campus humor.
The vast majority of the striking verbiage comes from Violet, the irrefutable commanding star of the film whose straight-faced absurdities and outlandish suppositions somehow come across as authentic, truthful and entirely plausible — a feat that can only be achieved by the masterful writing of Stillman and the total dedication of Gerwig.
Violet’s lofty and downright peculiar ambitions — most notably her adamant resolve to start a new dance craze, which she claims is the “sort of thing that changes the course of human history” — are cinematic gold as they rally the unknowing audience in support of a non-existent cause.
But the unwavering dedication from Gerwig and the supporting cast members to embody Violet’s ambitions as absolute truth manages to garner audience favor to the extent that it really does not matter what the audience is rooting for, so long as they are rooting with Violet.
Tipton also shines as the fresh-faced and lost Lily whose naïveté and unformed perceptions of college make for the perfect blank canvas on which Violet can paint her perfectly crafted dogma.
Tipton’s unconventional and youthful beauty makes her the ideal choice to win the affections of fellow students Charlie (Brody) and Xavier (Gossip Girl ’s Hugo Becker) in what amounts to a perplexing romantic entanglement that pushes the boundary of conventional college relationships, dealing with controversial issues that dance on the brink of taboo.
Though Stillman’s screenplay undoubtedly brings brilliance and sophistication to the film — as an homage to the power of words — the cinematography and music bring the story to life.
The light and lively soundtrack lends a whimsical quality, while the feminine and airy color palette brings an ethereal feel to the piece, almost as if the picture were enhanced by one of Instagram’s trademark photo effects.
The unique and irrefutably odd plot, characters and ambience make the film more of a niche piece than a satisfying mainstream comedy, but the popularity of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris testifies to the increasing popularity of this distinctive metropolitan genre.
In his director’s statement, Stillman reinforces the key role that the word “tailspin” plays in the film, comparing the many characters’ gradual yet unmistakable unraveling with a plane spiraling downward, nose-first, toward Earth.
“Just as pilots use steep dives to build speed and regain control, our heroine finds downward velocity reforming her life,” Stillman said. “But in steep descent one cannot be sure a fatal crash will be avoided.”
This eccentric metaphor flawlessly parallels the overall feel and tone of this distinctly Stillman, offbeat piece that is every bit as moving, hilarious and downright delightful as it is peculiar and unexpected.