Cinema Review: Damsels in Distress

With the 18th Bradford International Film Festival under way, Leon Nicholson takes a look at Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress starring Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Adam Brody.

On General Release at UK Cinemas from Friday April 27th, 2012

After attending the launch event for the 18th Bradford International Film Festival, my first thoughts about the movies on offer were  ‘brave film choices but this could possibly be a festival for non-mainstream film buffs. 

Then another mini-surprise came my way – the Opening Gala – usually an  invite only event where the gentlemen are donned in their tuxedos and the ladies glammed up to the max, looking beautiful  in their Evening Gowns; would become a more casual affair. The festival’s differing approach also took the form of a Damsels in Distress theme with tap dancers present and other quirky features that made a lot more sense after watching the moive.

Bradford has never really been one to conform with the norm by opening their festivals with big blockbusting movies but nontheless choosing Damsels in Distress  to open this year’s festival was a very bold move.

Damsels in Distress sees the return of Whit Stillman from a 13 year hiatus, which tells the story of the trials and tribulations of three girls at Seven Oaks College who set out to change the lives of the students via the medium of music and dance routines, ‘counselling’ and good hygiene. Led by Violet, (Greta Gerwig) with Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) in tow, these girls, well known throughout the campus, have unfortunately garnered a not so sparkling reputation despite their good intentions.

They recruit transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) to their group and inform her of their reasons for their actions and what they are trying to achieve. However as time goes on, these girls become involved with some of the boys whose attitudes they are attempting to change which threaten to alter the group’s dynamic.

Likes, dislikes, love and hate are strange attributes which signify that there is simply no accounting for taste – whether it’s music, films, humour, food or drink. The saying “one man’s meat is another man’s poison,” has never rung so true as it does with Damsels in Distress.

Thankfully, there are positives to this movie. The performances are excellent; Megalyn Echikunwoke (The 4400) looks great and plays her role Rose, the principled, opinionated person in the group wonderfully well. Carrie MacLemore plays the sweetness and light but the slightly odd Heather brilliantly while Analeigh Tipton (Crazy, Stupid, Love) does well as Lily; the most ‘normal’ girl in the group who has been dragged into a whole new world that she never really knew existed. Adam Brody (Mr & Mrs Smith, Scream 4) offers good support as does Jermaine Crawford (The Wire), Caitlin Fitzgerald (It’s Complicated) and Hugo Becker (Gossip Girl) as the varying love interests and rivals.

The star of the show however is Greta Gerwig (Greenberg) who is simply fantastic as Violet, a troubled girl, looking for troubled souls. Damsels in Distress is built around Gerwig offering her the perfect platform to showcase her skills and talent by propelling the movie forward with consummate ease. There’s no doubt whatsoever that Gerwig  is able to ‘lead’ and ‘carry’ this film and of course, there will be more to come from her in the near future.

Whit Stillman’s quality direction drives the girls’ story against a backdrop of ‘ philosophical debate’, comedy and music. The characters are far from cool and all possess teenage angst in some form or other minus the grunge rock/punk/nu metal soundtrack that is usually associated with troubled youths. The script has moments of pure genius with great lines; an example being at a party Violet, when hearing the Real McCoy’s Another Night, refers to it as a ‘golden oldie’.

The truth however, as mentioned before it’s all about taste and it is this significant factor which firmly applies to this film more than any other. How can a well directed movie with great performances not appeal to everyone?

Damsels in Distress is more quirky and off-beat that most Indie comedies and with a slightly warped charm, this ensures that it becomes an acquired taste. The humour never reaches side-splittingly, outrageously funny proportions instead opting for a more subtle and gentle approach. There are enough moments to make you smile and with a repeat viewing its probable (only probable) that Damsels in Distress may be a movie viewers may learn to love… therein, however lies the problem.

The unconventional qualities that make Damsels in Distress so different and in some people’s eyes, so appealing are also the ones that cause it to suffer.  The film gets too tangled and caught up in its own web of wit, innocence and oddity and after a while it strays into ‘tedious’ territory which is unfortunate. Why? Well it threatens to undo the hard work of the director and quash the excellent performances of the cast. Has Whit Stillman’s 13 year absence led to him and his ideas being left behind or is he trying to resurrect a genre that had lost its fun and naivety, lacking in so many ‘teen movies’ nowadays?

Whatever the answer, there may not be enough ‘mainstream and conventional traits within Damsels in Distress to convince Joe Public to watch this in the first place, never mind revisiting the film.

FMV Rating: **½

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