Sunday, March 17, 2013

Damsels in Distress

Written and directed by Whit Stillman, Damsels in Distress is the story of a transfer student who arrives at a university where she becomes part of a small group of women where they deal with the men in their lives. The film marks the return of Whit Stillman after a thirteen-year gap between films as he once again explores the world of young adults except in a new environment and with a new set of rules. Starring Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Adam Brody, Hugo Becker, Megan Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, and Ryan Metcalf. Damsels in Distress is a delightful comedy from Whit Stillman.

College life is a place where people go in the search to find themselves while finding ways to enjoy life. In this film, it revolves around three young women who take in a young transfer student as they deal with the pratfalls of love as well as trying to find ways to make life better no matter how bad things are. Leading the pack is Violet (Greta Gerwig) who is a sociable junior who runs a suicide prevention center with her two roommates Rose (Megan Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore). The three women are known for their fashion sense and keen observation about the world of college life as they take in sophomore transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) to be part of their group. Still, both Violet and Lily do get involved with some men in their lives as it makes things complicated where they each have two different ideas on how to deal with depression and disappointment where Violet doesn’t want to give in to the idea that she’s depressed.

Whit Stillman’s screenplay definitely recalls a lot of his past works where characters discuss about their roles in life and what is ahead yet things are different this time around as it’s all set in a university in the American east coast. Violet is definitely a unique individual who had been through some tough times in her life but always try to find someway to keep her spirits up. Yet, a new challenge involving someone she was with forces her to go into a tailspin until she finds something that she believes could help out get out of that tailspin. Lily is the outsider in the film as she is someone who has just transferred to a new school as she is in love with a European man in Xavier (Hugo Becker) while finding herself attracted to a man named Charlie (Adam Brody) whom Violet is suddenly attracted to.

This would eventually cause tension between Violet and Lily for much of the film’s second half where Lily is having a more active social life though she still wants to be friends with Violet. Violet however, wants to do things to help herself with the help of the sweet Heather and the more cynical Rose as she gets the idea to start a dance craze in the hopes to get people’s spirits up. Even as Violet uses the suicide prevention building as a way for people to dance so that they wouldn’t feel suicidal though some dispute Violet’s beliefs. Another interesting aspect about the film are the way men portrayed where there are those like Charlie who is a unique individual who is just trying to find himself. There are some men who are quite dim but they do offer something that gives them more to do while Xavier is this passionate European who is going through a crisis of identity and spirituality as he would later trouble Lily.

Stillman’s direction is definitely a bit different from his previous work as it’s much broader in some places while maintaining that air of intimacy that he’s been known for. Notably as Stillman goes farther away from the cities to something much more confined but still wild in the world of colleges. Notably as it involves some strange realm of social circles such as frat houses and dorms that are notorious for being very smelly. The world of Violet and her friends is quite different but also simple as they do live in dorms while being observers around their environment. While Stillman’s film is a light-hearted comedy with some low-key aspects of drama. There is something in the film that adds an element of escapism which is in the form of musicals.

With the help of choreographer Justin Cerne, Stillman uses dance as a way to help express Violet’s desire to make people feel better. Even as she attempts to start a new dance craze known as the Sambola which is this a mixture of all sorts of dances rolled into one. That element of the musical definitely gives the film a much more livelier feel as it expresses Violet’s desire to make the world much better. Even if it involves something as simple as the scent of a bar of soap that proves to be a wonderfully effective use of comedy. Overall, Stillman creates a truly splendid and fun film that explores a young woman’s desire to make college life better for the world with some help from her friends.

Cinematographer Doug Emmett does some fantastic work with the film‘s colorful cinematography from the sunny exteriors in the campus to some of the more straightforward look in some of the film‘s interior scenes. Editor Andrew Hafitz does nice work with the editing to create some stylish cuts for some of the more light-hearted moments along with some straight cuts in the dramatic portions of the film. Production designer Elizabeth J. Jones, along with set decorator Emmanuelle Hoessly and art director Brian Goodwin, does terrific work with the look of the campuses and places nearby to express a world that is thriving but also being troubled by a dorm that is known for being grungy and smelly.

Costume designer Ciera Wells is absolutely a highlight of the film from the colorful yet bright dresses Violet, Rose, and Heather wear to the more straight-laced look of Lily while they also delve into more stylish clothing as the clothes really add a nuance to the film‘s look. Sound editor Tom Paul does excellent work with the sound to capture the atmosphere of some of the party scenes as well as some of the intimate moments in the conversations. The film’s music by Mark Suozzo and Adam Schlesinger is brilliant for its playful use of piano-based music with a bit of jazz and rock into the mix to play out the world of college life along with some original music such as the Sambola song. Music supervisor Annie Pearlman creates a soundtrack that features a wide range of music from rock, 90s dance, and show tunes to establish Violet’s urge for escapism.

The casting by Kerry Barden, Anya Colloff, Amy McIntyre Britt, and Paul Schnee is incredible as it features appearances from two of Stillman’s old regulars in Carolyn Farina as a diner waitress and Taylor Nichols as a professor. Other small roles include Alia Shawkat as a student annoyed by Violet’s tap dancing, Aubrey Plaza as a depressed student who often attends the suicide center, Zach Woods as an elitist editor of the school’s paper, Meredith Hagner as Xavier’s old girlfriend Alice, Jermaine Crawford as a friend of the girls who helps them in the suicide center, and Caitlin Fitzgerald as a suicidal student the girls save only to unknowingly betray Violet. Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen are very funny as two dim-witted frat boys who are friends of the girls with Metcalf as an old boyfriend of violet who feels bad for what he did while Magnussen is the more innocent of the two as he is admittedly ignorant but in a sweet way.

Hugo Becker is excellent as the European student Xavier who is confused over his own identity as well as his feelings for Lily. Adam Brody is terrific as Charlie as a well-dressed playboy who is still trying to figure himself out while gaining the attraction of both Violet and Lily. Carrie MacLemore is wonderful as the very sweet Heather who always tries to figure out what to do while she creates an idea that would later prove to be very helpful. Megan Echikunwoke is superb as the British student Rose who is sort of the cynic of the four while trying to figure out how to help everyone else with these issues. Analeigh Tipton is remarkable as Lily as a young transfer student trying to figure out Violet’s view on the world while dealing with her own dating life. Finally, there’s Greta Gerwig in a fabulous performance as Violet as a woman eager to make the world a better place while trying to confront her own issues with men and the world as it’s really a performance that is just so much fun to watch.

Damsels in Distress is a sensational film from Whit Stillman. Armed with a great cast led by Greta Gerwig, it’s a film that explores the world of college life and those trying to find themselves in that environment. It’s also a film that explores a young woman’s desire to create a world for herself that she feels is being bogged down while trying to deal with the pratfalls of love with the women in her life. In the end, Damsels in Distress is a marvelous film from Whit Stillman.

Whit Stillman Films: Metropolitan - Barcelona - The Last Days of Disco - Love & Friendship - The Auteurs #21: Whit Stillman

© thevoid99 2013


Dan Heaton said...

I agree that Damsels feels a bit different than Stillman's other work. I'm still a big fan of it, and I'm glad that you also enjoyed it. It's moving further into a fantasy world and definitely has aspects of the musical like you mention. I agree that the casting is very strong, and it's fun to see Farina and Nichols in there once again. Good stuff.

thevoid99 said...

I really enjoyed it. Notably as it wants to move away from reality into something that is a bit of escapist realm. I really hope Stillman doesn't make the fans wait for another 13 years.

Chris said...

While I did like the dialogue, I didn't get to grips with the fantasy world/musical style/deadpan humour of Damsels in Distress. Good review, I think I can better appreciate what I watched after reading this.

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-The idea of the musical style seems off at first but dancing and singing does somehow managed to help curb depression so I think it actually worked in what Stillman was going for.