Review: Damsels in Distress

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

According to scientific studies, most people don’t laugh out loud when alone. When you’re by yourself and read or watch something funny, you might smile or even chuckle a little. Laughter in a crowd is contagious, but full-on laughter by yourself is a strictly spontaneous reaction.

So it must mean something that I laughed out loud a dozen times – all by my lonesome – watching “Damsels in Distress,” the delightful new comedy from director Whit Stillman.

The weird thing is, “Damsels” isn’t really a laugh-out-loud kind of movie. A modest, eccentric comedy of manners, the movie earns its laughs with its quiet surprises and unexpected absurdity. You don’t laugh at Whitman’s movie. You laugh with it.

“Damsels” tells the story of four young women at a small Ivy League-type college in New England. Led by the unsinkable Violet (Greta Gerwig), the ladies are dedicated to improving themselves and others through random acts of kindness and well-intentioned condescension.

Violet’s specialty is rehabilitating frat-boy doofuses – or doofi, to use the preferred plural form. Violet actually enjoys dating losers, since there is so much room for improvement. “They’re in that sympathetic range of being not good-looking, and yet not smart,” she says.

Violet’s pals – Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Lily (Analeigh Tipton) – develop their own romantic entanglements as the movie progresses. Meanwhile, the girls do their best to improve life on campus for everyone – staffing the suicide prevention center (free doughnuts!) and gifting dorm dwellers with sensible hygiene products.

For director Stillman, “Damsels” is a return to familiar territory after his great 1990s trilogy of 20-something WASPs in love (“Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco”).

“Damsels” is more overtly comic than any of those, and Stillman has a few running gags that are just masterfully deployed. Another joy of Stillman’s movies is the precise, musical dialogue. His overeducated characters don’t employ the English language so much as they luxuriate in it, with articulate digressions and flowery bon mots. Stillman’s mannered style is often compared to Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse, and even the film’s title cards suggest a Vanity Fair magazine cover, circa 1910.

All of which would ring rather hollow, except that “Damsels” has real heart, too. Gerwig’s performance anchors the movie in this regard. As the social ringleader Violet, Gerwig is playing a person who is herself playing a part. Beneath Violet’s airy self-assurance is a barely contained emotional panic, and Gerwig reveals the layers gradually. In fact, at one point we discover that Violet, and at least one of her friends, may not be who they say they are at all.

These issues of identity and 20-something neurosis are constantly bubbling under the surface in “Damsels.” The characters in the movie aren’t quite fully formed – they’re young adults still working out what kind of grown-ups they’re going to be. It takes real filmmaking chops to explore this terrain while keeping the tone so feather-light and funny.

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