US indie darling Greta Gerwig stars alongside Adam Brody and Analeigh Tipton in Whit Stillman’s first film in 13 years, Damsels in Distress (2011) – an alternative take on the American frat movie that falls somewhere between a parody of middle-class contemporary social life and a high-brow Clueless (1995).
Violet (Gerwig) is an incredibly pedantic, presumptuous and borderline obsessive compulsive student at Seven Oaks College who strives to be remembered for creating something significant like a new dance craze – which she believes unlike education or medicine, is a far more meaningful and life affirming pursuit. She leads a trio of girls working in the university’s suicide prevention centre who through a combination of tap dance and doughnuts are attempting to shake-up the college campus’ male-dominated environment of ‘operator playboy types’ and rescue their fellow students from depression and their own self-imposed low standards.
Damsels in Distress is everything you’d expect from the creator of such films as Metropolitan (1990) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), with Stillman still littering his films with detestable socialites with a repugnant sense of self entitlement. However, despite his cast consisting of narcissistic upper-middle class students who depend on their verbose exchanges of ideas to mask their confusion of the world, Stillman manages to allow the audience to engage with them and identify with their existential crisis by revealing their humanity through a script riddled with wit and dense, revealing dialogue.
Gerwig – already perceived as the unofficial queen of indie filmmaking – is, as to be expected, superb. Fuelled by the type of script any actor would love to have presented to them, she positively revels in the pretentious and arrogant characteristics of Violet, expelling an assured egotistical demeanour that recalls Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) – only far more complex and endearing.
Despite being quintessentially Stillman, there are certain new elements within Damsels in Distress that whilst possibly making the film more appealing to audiences new to his distinctive style, may also alienate those who’ve been waiting so long for his latest work. Far more whimsical and twee than his earlier output, the dry wit and scholarly humour synonymous with his films of the nineties is intertwined with some unusually jovial offbeat comedy – including some delightful musical numbers shot through a collection of inviting pastel shades and sun-drenched backdrops that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Jacques Demy effort.
Towards the end of the film, Fred (Brody) is asked what he’s basing his thesis on, he replies “The decline of decadence” – a more than fitting allegory for Damsels in Distress, a film which sees Stillman returning from a 13 year absence and adapting accordingly to the evolution of contemporary social life whilst still maintaining his eclectic, yet incredibly charming approach.