When new student Lilly (Analeigh Tipton) arrives at Seven Oaks College she is almost straight away taken under the wing of a trio of girls with some peculiar sensibilities. There’s Violet (Greta Gerwig), the leader of the group, a beautiful and complicated woman with a unique outlook on love and life. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who speaks constantly in a fake British accent and doesn’t trust men and then there’s Heather (Carrie MacLemore) the simple southern bell. The three introduce Lilly to their lifestyle and mission to make life more enjoyable but as troubles with the opposite sex begin to raise their head, the group dynamic shifts.
I would find it an impossible task to not talk about Greta Gerwig when discussing Damsels in Distress. Her rather mesmerising turn as Violet is the film’s anchor, not only for the plot but for style. That sense of a personality from a much older generation being trapped in a character living in contemporary surroundings is perfectly captured. But it’s the way people react around her that is the key, you have Lilly – looking from the outside in – who is still able to look at the girls’ actions with a critical eye of absurdity. Then the individuals like Rose and Heather – who’s already been caught up in Violet’s ways – and have no idea about the farcical nature of their ideals.
The heightened reality of university life and the characters Stillman populates that world with lets it work on a different level than any other romantic comedy in recent memory. On the surface this is a very silly and quirky comedy but it also works on many levels. Its intelligence is somewhat hidden behind the ludicrous characters and their relationships. As well as the interesting look at gender politics in society, it has other stand out moments of hilarity. The lovely dig at the insanity of finding religion, where instead of Violet discovering God she finds hope in the scent of a motel room bar of soap and then attempts to spread the hope from this soap all around campus.
And for those of your buying the DVD, the disc has some decent special features. Starting off with a director’s commentary, you also get a short but sweet 10 minute ‘Behind the Scenes’ doc as well as a longer 30 minute filmmaker and cast Q&A. Not forgetting an outtakes clip, a trailer and a feature on the film’s soundtrack.
Damsels in Distress is a hilarious, slightly ‘off-centre’ comedy that will be labelled ‘too quirky for its own good’ by some when it is in fact an excellently played, written and performed dissection of modern gender roles in society. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another 13 years for the next Whit Stillman film.