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Damsels in Distress

by on May 3, 2012
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In the 1990s, Whit Stillman was the man. He made three independent films (“Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and my favorite, “The Last Days of Disco”) that inspired a number of storytellers while being funny in a very academic way. Then he fell off the map. He adapted “Disco” into a novel and struggled to get a film greenlit. Now, after 13 years, he has finally returned with a new movie that works in a different way than his last set.

With his older films, all of Stillman’s characters were consistently witty while often being clueless about how to interact in the real world. In “Damsels in Distress,” his characters are so stupid that it almost feels surreal at times. However, Stillman handles both forms of heightened dialogue with subtlety and excitement.

The wonderfully ridiculous plot revolves around a coed named Violet (Greta Gerwig) who wants to save the rest of her campus from suicide and poor hygiene. Her methods are earnest, but are mostly revolved around supplying people with free doughnuts if they are truly on the verge of killing themselves. It sounds dark, but the way people try to kill themselves is to jump off the roof of the highest building, which is only two stories high.

When Lily, the new girl, joins their little group, she questions some of Violet’s methods. She is the only character who resembles a normal person, but that makes her the oddball in the movie. The frat guy who doesn’t know the names of colors is more genuine than the way Lily changes her opinions based on the person to whom she’s speaking.

Most importantly, this movie is really funny. It’s Stillman using his sophisticated humor in a new way by embracing the complete absurdity of this world. By the end, you want to root for this very silly band of idiots and for Stillman to return to making films on a regular basis again.