Movie Review: Damsels in Distress (2011)




When “Damsels in Distress” begins, it is hard to ignore its “Mean Girls” leanings. After all they have quite a bit in common. A new girl arrives at school (Analeigh Tipton) where she is quickly taken under the wing of a female clique (Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore), which is headed by an intimidating blonde leader, Gerwig’s Violet. Slightly na├»ve and clearly out of place, Lily (Tipton) needs help navigating the world of a liberal arts college inhabited by the dimmest students imaginable. The only academic field apparently necessary to be accepted is writing your name on the application. However, throughout the course of the movie there are characters that emerge who seem incapable of even accomplishing that small feat. Not stupid and strikingly so, Violet is a rambling expression of big ideas, values and philosophies. Effusive and passionate, she quickly becomes the heart of the story as her idealism is shaken by betrayal.

It’s easy to empathize with Violet. Her effervescent optimism is infectious and Greta Gerwig brings her bubbling to life with a magnetism that grounds her zaniness into a relatable force. Violet’s embraced her strangeness to a degree that she’s forgotten that she was ever that peculiar to begin with, banishing the scars of a ridiculed past. What remains is a plucky co-ed struggling to marry the refinement of the past with the lost gentility of the present. That she has two followers/friends is a bit of movie magic, given the real world would often stomp out someone as unique and outspoken. However in the world of “Damsels”, she has managed to thrive as an oddball who though embraced by some, goes mostly underappreciated by her peers, who struggle to see how much of a pretty amazing person she really is.
Seeming to have pranced right out of a Woody Allen movie, Violet is the best part of a rather out-of-this-world flick. “Damsels” could’ve just as easily been titled “The Hipster Guidebook to Life: Everything You Need to Know about Feeling Superior, Dressing Cool and Pretending to Comprehend the Ironic”. Walt Whitman’s script is a biting indictment that hits on a few truths but gets scatterbrained with an interlude as a musical and a pace that crawls after the first 20 minutes into something incredibly baffling. It also has a way of talking down to its audience, attempting to zip dialogue by so quickly that you feel too exasperated to even try making sense of it.
As a satire on the current state of dating from the female perspective, it is sadly accurate. Men in “Damsels” don’t get a positive representation which is clearly a purposeful work of exaggeration meant to make a point. In this isolated sample of college life gone awry young men who are dumb, unfaithful, pervasive and pathologically deceptive, rule the day. Whitman’s screenplay is correct in saying that it’s ultimately up to women to hold the standard and refuse to lower themselves to anything below where they have it set at. The exaggeration of male-dom is a drawback to the movie. While clearly there to make a statement, it borders disastrously close to crossing the line into being full blown offensive as it’s getting there.
Opening with a bit of madcap nuance, Whitman veers the film into a wacky overdrive that is delirious in nature. There are dance and singing sequences meant to conjure the spirit of Fred Astaire and in doing so it loses its real world sensibility. It is one thing to have a sing-a-long dance sequence a la “(500) Days of Summer” that flows in with some hyper reality and then fades away. It’s a completely different animal to have it start to overshadow every facet of the movie. Due to this sidetracking, the first quarter of the film is completely disconnected from the rest and at close to an hour and 40 minutes, it feels much longer.
By the time subplots involving Lily’s romance with her friend turned more-than-friend Xavier (Hugo Becker), Heather’s (a charming Carrie Maclemore) courtship of the dumb as a box of hair Thor (Billy Magnussen) and Violet’s ensuing fixation on creating the next dance craze, the movie has worn out most of its goodwill. Gerwig keeps the fires burning that the ship that appeared so promising from a distance can maintain its allure throughout and though it doesn’t deliver, she rescues “Damsels” from total destruction. Rating: 5.5/10
This movie was reviewed in conjunction with the War Horse vs. War Machine podcast episode. Here’s the full description via War Horse vs.War Machine and click here to listen:
“On this episode, Greta Gerwig’s latest MISTRESS AMERICA has us talking about her influence in two prior starring roles in LOLA VERSUS and DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. In one, a breakup has her leaning on friends and in the other she seeks out people to help guide them to happiness. Britt from the pop culture blog Eclectic Pop guides us through The Greta Gerwig Effect. But first, we talk with Sam Levy, director of photography for MISTRESS AMERICA, about his work with writer/director Noah Baumbach.”

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