Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Damsels In Distress

Title: Damsels In Distress
Director: Whit Stillman
Released: 2011
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Hugo Becker, Ryan Metcalf, Billy Magnussen, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Jermaine Crawford, Alia Shawkat, Aubrey Plaza, Zach Woods, Taylor Nichols, Carolyn Farina, Meredith Hagner

Plot: Lily (Tipton) a newly transferred college student is taken under the wing of Violet (Gerwig), Heather (MacLemore) and Rose (Echikunwoke) who run the campus’ suicide prevention centre, while at the same time running numerous schemes to try and improve the campus.


Review:  Not only the first film I have seen by director Whit Stillman, it’s also one that I had to watch twice before I sat down to write this review as my first watch of the film left me with mixed feelings,  especially as I knew that there was something about this film I just couldn’t place what it was.

For Stillman this would be his first film after taking a thirteen year break after the release of his previous film “The Last Days of Disco”. Here he appears to have rolled into the same campus that Wes Anderson showed us in “Rushmore”, which perhaps is the best place to start especially when Violet could easily be seen as Max’s female counterpart and more so when his film which seemingly is determined to avoid being any one thing. Not that this a bad thing as the various parts are certainly interesting enough, it just makes it a pain in the ass to review.

Despite looking like a mean girl clique, this group of friends are actually nothing of the sort as they take their work at the campus’ suicide prevention centre like a job rather than a volunteer position, as they offer a sympathetic ear as well as coffee and doughnuts for those in need.  However they don’t stop here as they also date the less attractive men on campus to help boost their confidence and even attempt to clean up one of the more unhygienic dorms by giving the gifts of bars of soap. Of course this is all done in such a surreal style that some of these goals achieved can be missed out, especially when Stillman chooses to shoot the film in the same detached style that Terry Zwigoff brought to his “Ghost World" adaptation.

Unquestionably though its an original vision that Stillman crafts as the girls frequently act like they belong in the 1940’s while at the same time dancing to 90’s dance music such Real McCoy’s “Another Night” which Violet delightfully proclaims “A golden oldie”. Elsewhere the campus fraternities shun the traditional Greek letters in favour of Roman Letters and one were a random Fred and Ginger inspired dance routine can be dropped in randomly with little or no effect to the film. Stillman here like Wes Anderson manages to not only craft this world but more impressively make it believable without the usual feeling of style over substance. That being said the actual plot of the film is frustratingly hard to place in recollection with the film largely consisting of the girls dealing with one incident on campus to the next, combined with the usual issues of unsuitable boyfriends and clashes with the school newspaper amusingly titled “The Daily Complainer” and headed up perfectly by Zach Woods of “Silicon Valley” fame.

Perhaps because Stillman has assembled such a likable, let alone capable cast who embody such fun characters we are able to look past such things as the fact we have spent the last hour and a half essentially watching nothing. That being said this really is Gerwig’s flm and whose background in Mumblecore perhaps makes her more capable of adapting to such free flowing material as this. Here though free of the pretension of that cinematic movement really is able to shine as the group leader, able to motivate them effortlessly to her vision for the campus, let alone leading the campus in their newly created dance craze “The Sambola” which even comes with onscreen directions for wanting to try it for themselves.

Alas the film is not without its flaws as Adam Brody whose appearance is usually the cinematic equivalent of piles and here once more gives us yet another forgettable performance, which perhaps is only noteworthy for how less smarmy it is than normal. At the same time his character could easily have been written out, especially when he serves little purpose ultimately other than to give Gerwig a dance partner for the finale. True the film features other random characters who serve to add little to the plot, but none or given that kind of attention that Brody confusingly receives here.

Certainly an original film to say the least and one which at the same time will unquestionably divide opinions, depending on how coherent you like your storytelling, while the fact that its also a film which is an experience to watch makes it only the harder to review, leaving myself with little to do that recommend you at least give it a watch if anything I mentioned caught your interest, as this is a unique one to say the least.

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