Film Review – Damsels in Distress
I have no idea what I just watched, but I had fun watching it. In trying to describe Damsels in Distress, it has been a struggle to be accurate without making the film seem too weird. It took at least ten minutes before I could sit back and take in what I was seeing. We start with 1950s-style-dress-wearing Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her posse of friends. At Seven Oaks College campus, they decide to take transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under their wing. At first, there’s something unnerving about the way they choose Lily. Are they going to embarrass her? Are they recruiting her into some Stepford Wives group? But as Violent talks, we realize that she is not sinister at all—she and her friends just have very intense quirks.
Violet wants to be a help to all people. This includes running the suicide prevention clinic on campus. She puts an emphasis on free coffee, doughnuts, and dancing as the chosen forms of therapy, and she sees making a worldwide dance phenomenon as having the biggest impact in the world. Her helpfulness extends to the fraternities on campus, where she sees dating the local stupid boys as trying to help them become better people. She is generally hurt when her dumb boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) cheats on her and she has to deal with her heartbreak.
In watching this film, you have to just accept what is being presented. If you are too literal, the events here will drive you mad. Director and writer Whit Stillman’s control over keeping us involved in this strange world is strengthened by his commitment to that world. This is undercut by his transition choice of jumping scenes by showing a title card for the next sequence. There is no inherent reason for this; it is simply the way Stillman has chosen to make transitions. Sequences can last for several minutes or be over very quickly. These moments can take you a while to adjust to, but he counterbalances that beautifully in the dialogue, which is sharp and able to intrigue. You never know exactly where a conversation may go without everything becoming confusing, but also being very funny.
There is no central story or idea, but there is an infectious charm as we follow Violet and her friends and the men who become attached to them at given moments. Violet makes her way through her heartbreak in her own way, still pining for Frank despite everyone pointing out his stupidity. We see Lily as she gets involved with the group but also questions Violet and her motivations. This is never done with malice; she’s simply trying to figure out this woman. And every character, from Violet’s group to the most random hanger-on, will surprise and make you laugh with their quirks. We have one character who doesn’t know what colors are—some accept this, and those who do not make commentary, but even then they are not actually trying to judge. Then there are the boys Lily attracts, including Charlie (Adam Brody), an “operator” or maybe a nice guy, and Xavier (Hugo Becker), a foreign exchange student with some interesting beliefs. They, on appearance, can be seen as normal compared to Violet and her group, but time with them shows that quirkiness comes in many shapes.
These characters, while having a degree of growth, really are here to simply get our attention, and no one is better at that than Violet. She is infuriatingly odd, yet very compelling to watch. You can see why she brings out such strong emotions in those who are around her. This is all thanks to Greta Gerwig, an actress I was not familiar with until I saw Greenberg. She is also great in that, but at the time I had not done a whole lot of examining of her as an actress. Seeing her here, I am now more inclined to search her out. Gerwig makes us believe that Violet really does have these ideas and thoughts, and that is what makes her so engaging. You can imagine having a conversation with Violet and being charmed and confused all in the same moment.
What you come away with from this film is a genuine feeling of joy. These are quirky characters that are just fun to be with. Stillman has created a self-contained world where everyone is a little off, yet he never plays it up for straight weirdness. He lets it be fun and playful, so it is never so out there that you get lost, but just odd enough to get you invested. That and a trust that his actors can sell this concept with such commitment make you wonder what is in the water at this school.
Final Grade: B+