Damsels in Distress (2012)

27 April 2012

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Damsels in Distress. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and produced by Westerly Film Production, Distress is a comedy about a trio of beautiful girls as they set out to revolutionize life at a grungy American university the dynamic leader Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), principled Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and sexy Heather (Carrie MacLemore). They welcome transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into their group which seeks to help severely depressed students with a program of good hygiene and musical dance numbers. The girls become romantically entangled with a series of menincluding smooth Charlie (Adam Brody), dreamboat Xavier (Hugo Becker) and the mad frat pack of Frank (Ryan Metcalf) and Thor (Billy Magnussen) who threaten the girls friendship and sanity.

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"Still searching the web to find synonyms for the word 'annoying'..."

It would appear that some films are simply of an acquired taste, as despite a relative degree of critical acclaim for Damsels in Distress, I'm still searching the web to find synonyms for the word 'annoying', as Whit Stillman's latest production is like Mean Girls geeky and irritating older sister.

Based at Seven Oaks college in America, we follow a trio of superficial girls, trying to swing the balance in an otherwise male dominated school. Appearing as do-gooders Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) have set up a suicide prevention centre, as they seek to enhance the befouled lifestyles of those living on their campus.

They manage to recruit a fourth member of their seemingly ostensible friendship group in new student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who comes with a few problems of her own and she attempts to juggle two relationships with different guys. Violet's intrusive and arrogant nature mixed with her desire to help Lily, soon shows her up as she suffers from heartbreak more so than any of the others ever had following her break-up with Frank (Ryan Metcalf). She soon finds herself in a further predicament as she starts falling for Fred (Adam Brody) - one of Lily's admirers.

My greatest concern regarding Damsels in Distress is within it's contrived attempt to be quirky and unconventional. When such a style works it can be brilliant, like Napoleon Dynamite for example, but when filmmakers get it wrong it can absolutely terrible, like Juno. I hate Juno. Stillman would argue that his feature is taking more of an ironic take on quirkiness, almost mimicking films such as Juno, but as far as I'm concerned, that just makes matters worse. In fairness, however, by setting the film in an almost parallel universe where life is just slightly different (epitomised in the quite unconventional use of speech) it makes it more forgiveable, whereas Juno was supposed to be real life, and real people, which furthered its annoyance.

Another issue I have with the film is my lack of empathy for any of the characters. I think I actively dislike every single person featuring within this movie, which isn't exactly what you want from a supposed comedy drama. Violet is easily the most irritating and although she is supposed to be, I'm sure Stillman had envisaged that she would become likeable by the end, whereas my disdain was somehow growing as the film progressed.

I can see what Stillman was attempting to achieve and I admire him for the effort. There was an evident inclination towards emulating old romantic cinema, with references to French new wave films such as La Grande Illusion and various references to Fred Astaire. You can tell Stillman is going for that Hollywood romanticism, but it just doesn't work.

On a more positive note, the soundtrack is great, with a wonderful 50's sounding score, as the film opens with an almost Grease-like feel as instantly the girls can be compared the to 'Pink Ladies' from the classic musical. It's also refreshing to see a college based film not be about losing your virginity or trying to obtain alcohol, certainly offering something quite different to what we have become accustomed to. 

Yet despite the minor positives, it's not a film I would ever want to see again. There are many that really admire this film and Stillman's other work but I simply don't get it. It's his first film for 13 years (unlucky for some) and the first I've ever seen by the Oscar-nominated director. Allegedly he has a certain style to his films and I'm sure had I seen his previous titles it would have helped me enjoy Damsels in Distress a bit more, but having now seen this, I don't think I'll bother.

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