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Damsels In Distress Review

For someone missing in action for over a decade, writer/director Whit Stillman fits into the current indie comedy landscape pretty comfortably with Damsels in Distress. His hyper-articulate comedies about depressed and privileged pseudo-intellectual young folk may have seemed a bit out of place in the 90s, but after a decade of mumblecore and Wes Anderson ripoffs, his latest comedy fits comfortably into a certain mold. The movie is still distinctly Stillman’s own, but by dropping some of his darker self-destructive themes in favor or more breezy brainy laughs, it feels like his most accessible work. That doesn’t mean the film will break records at the box office of course, but it should find a large enough new audience to at least ensure a far shorter hiatus between projects for the director this time, which in and of itself is cause for a celebration of sorts.

For anyone unfamiliar with Stillman’s previous three movies Metropolitan, Barcelona, and, The Last Days of Disco, perhaps a brief introduction is in order. The director emerged in the early 90s before Harvey Weinstein turned independent movies into a cottage industry of awards baiting. His no budget debut Metropolitan dabbled in the world of wealthy young New York debutantes and future heads of business. Over-educated, over-funded brats struggling to become adults and living purely for social events. It was a world that hadn’t been seen in a while, played out in a delightfully anachronistic comedy style. Taking a cue from the likes of Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges rather than Woody Allen who most 20something New York filmmakers were aping at the time, the movie harkened back to sophisticated old Hollywood comedies. Dialogue driven with speeches and quips far too well-crafted for real life, the film was an odd combination of old and new, with bitter themes of failure and jealousy to darken the fun. He repeated the trick twice more, each time with a small audience being charmed with his unstuck in time cinematic voice.

Damsels in Distress recaptures that old/new comedy style, but without all the alienating “pain of a privileged youth” themes that earned the director an increasingly niche audience. This time his setting is an unnamed East Coast college that recently became coed. His protagonists are an eccentric group of elitist girls led by the apparent heir to Chloe Sevigny alt-it-girl throne Greta Gerwig as Violet. The girls always walk in a pack in long flowery dresses, determined to add a little feminine charm to their frat boy-heavy school. This means handing out decorated soap to smelly boys, offering doughnuts and tap dancing lessons to suicidal classmates, and dating guys to bring a little class into their bear-soaked lives. Sure, these are hardly noble pursuits, but ones that the group adamantly believes in, waxing intellectual about the topics in long flowery dialogue scenes whenever possible. Of course, heartbreak and depression slip into the girls’ lives (as always happens in college and Stillman’s permanently colligate world), but nothing that can’t be solved with impossibly quirky discussions and an attempt to start a new dance craze.

The film is deliberately light and fluffy. It’s an impossibly innocent world where Violet’s desire to help braindead frat boys struggling to learn the color spectrum with dance and sweet scents feels oddly noble. A few scenes offer the bite of Stillman’s old days (particularly Violet’s feud with an embittered campus newspaper editor who disappears far too quickly), but mostly his movie just offers literate comedy fun. It’s a charming picture that’s highly constructed to feel as light as a feather, yet it’s certainly not for everyone. Without even a passing knowledge the black and white Old Hollywood DVD collection that clearly occupied much of Stillman’s time away from the camera, the material will probably sound stilted and unnatural. Well, it is, but deliberately so and reveling in the charms of a bygone era of heightened comedies that glamorize a lifestyle that probably never existed. The jokes about the innocent idiot frat boys are far less demanding and almost feel torn out of the non-R-rated scenes of movies like Old School, but they fit into the charmingly stylized world comfortably. Damsels In Distress is a slightly inside comedy that will make you feel smart for understanding without ever really testing your intellect that much. It’s definitely for a select crowd, but one that’s grown in recent years and will hopefully embrace Stillman through a long awaited second chapter of his career. He may be a bit of a one-note filmmaker, but no one else plays that note quite as well. His hyper-articulate comedies about depressed and privileged pseudo-intellectual young folk may have seemed a bit out of place in the 90s, but after a decade of mumblecore and Wes Anderson ripoffs, his latest comedy fits comfortably into a certain mold. The movie is still distinctly Stillman’s own, but by dropping some of his darker self-destructive themes in favor or more breezy brainy laughs, it feels like his most accessible work. That doesn’t mean the film will break records at the box office of course, but it should find a large enough new audience to at least ensure a far shorter hiatus between projects for the director this time, which in and of itself is cause for a celebration of sorts.

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