Thursday, March 29, 2012

Damsels in Distress

So what have we here? Is Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress a more broadly satiric variation on Clueless, with Greta Gerwig in the Alicia Silverstone part? Or is it what we might get if Woody Allen and John Waters (Hairspray-era John Waters, that is, not Flamingos John Waters) had a movie baby together?

Set in some unspecified time that never actually existed (as one character puts is, “The past is gone, so why not romanticize it?”), this mostly charming comedy centers around an opinionated college student named Violet (Gerwig) on a mission to feminize a campus that's just recently gone co-ed. Violet rarely goes anywhere without her loyal little posse of flower-named friends, and most of the movie consists of following them around as they collect and dump new friends, couple and uncouple with the boys on campus, and talk talk talk—about their convictions, their friends, and the many people and things they disapprove of.

Obsessed with perfume and done up in dressy dresses and hairstyles, Violet, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) are comically ladylike. Like the movie’s other slightly ridiculous yet deeply self-serious characters, they can be a pain in the ass, but it’s hard not to love them—especially the acerbic, voice-of-reason Rose and the equally dogmatic but ditzy Violet, who turns out to be a kind soul under all those layers of judgment and proscription.

Gerwig broadens her usual air of dreamy thoughtfulness by two or three ticks to milk the humor in lines like “We are trying to make a difference in people’s lives, and one way to do that is to stop them from killing themselves.” Her background in dance also makes her a good fit for the role, since Violet, a firm believer in the therapeutic powers of dance, is the driving force behind most of the retro-with-a-twist dance numbers Stillman slips into the narrative—including the closing number, in which Violet presents the “international dance craze” she’s been trying to promote throughout most of the film.

But the movie’s main dance is performed by the stilted yet fluid dialogue that is Stillman’s trademark. The constant cascade of pointedly un-spontaneous-sounding speeches sometimes score legitimate points or advance the plot, but more often they make us snicker, like when Violet says she hates the editor of the campus paper partly because he is “a journalist, so you can only imagine the mid-boggling arrogance and conceit.”

I’m still not sure what to make of Damsels in Distress, but thinking about it makes me smile, and that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s just a sweetly absurd invitation to stop taking ourselves so damn seriously.

Written for The L Magazine

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