© 2012 Ray Wong
Clearly influenced by Marc Webb's 2009 sleeper hit (500) Days of Summer, Whit Stillman wrote and directed Damsels in Distress, a light romantic comedy set in fictional Seven Oaks College.
Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) are three college roommates who have a mission: to save people from depression, grunge and low standards of every kind. They make friends with transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), whom they determine is likely to fall pray to a "classically handsome guy" who will break her heart.
According to Violet, the true way to gain happiness is to be independent and to have a relationship with man who is in every way inferior. That's why she's dating Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a frat boy who is not particularly handsome or smart. But Frank breaks her heart anyway. Violet becomes depressed herself, but she refuses to get help from her fellow friends.
Meanwhile, as predicted, Lily falls for her handsome Catholic friend Xavier (Hugo Becker) while handsome Charlie (Adam Brody) also pursues her. After Lily chooses Xavier, Violet pursues Charlie and realizes they have so much in common. Despite her own advice, Violet finds herself falling for the "classically handsome man" who is in every way not inferior to her. Is her doomed for another heartache, or will she find happiness?
Greta Gerwig (Arthur) is quickly becoming Hollywood's new It Girl, and I can see why. As Violet, she beautifully handles the character's complexity, smug superiority complex as well as her vulnerability. There is something very endearing about Gerwig in every character she plays. Analeigh Tipton's (Crazy, Stupid Love) career also is taking off with a few high profile movies under her belt. As Lily -- Violet's protégé and at-times romantic rival -- Tipton is sweet and innocent and then she's not. Very interesting.
Carrie MacLemore (Gossip Girl) is a bit one-note as Heather, although she is so cute that you rather forgive her "safe" performance and bland character. Megalyn Echikunwoke (Who Do You Love) fares better as the sarcastic Rose, but her fake British accent is a bit distracting. The boys (or "Distress" in this case) generally give good performances in support of the girls. Ryan Metcalf (Fighting Fish) has the moronic frat boy down perfectly. French actor Hugo Becker (Gossip Girl) is dashing and somewhat creepy as Xavier, and Adam Brody (Scream 4) is charismatic as Charlie, the object of desire for both Violet and Lily.
Writer-Director Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco) has taken an episodic approach in telling this story. There really isn't a plot, or an arc. Mostly it's just about this group of eclectic characters meandering through college life and the minefield of young love. Much of the "plot" deals with the revolving door of their relationships, and how their perceptions and beliefs are challenged and changed. I find that kind of storytelling rather refreshing, and the characters are mostly endearing without being overtly quirky (Napoleon Dynamite, I am looking at you).
That said, the writing seems uneven. At times witty, insightful and bookishly delicious, and at times dull, contrived and pointless. The story also seems underdeveloped, as if the writer had run out of time. I have to struggle to find some deeper meanings in this story, or maybe I am looking too hard. It could very well be just a cute movie about some characters. Still, when you write a thematic comedy like this, you have to deliver certain deeper messages than just being cute and entertaining. I am not sure if Stillman achieved that.
Also, the direction seems amateurish. Perhaps that's the intended charm. But I find it distracting. For example, what's with the soft-glow filter? To me, that's just tacky. And the music is very amateurish (and not likely intentional as in Juno), sounding like an After School Special. The editing is choppy as well. Needless to say, I am not impressed. Perhaps I am missing something…
Still, I find Damsels in Distress mostly endearing and funny, and I laughed out loud a few times. I specially enjoyed the sarcasm and wit of the dialogue, and some of the interesting philosophical musings. As a movie though, it falls short to be a cult classic, but I guess it's not something to be distressed about.
Stars: Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Analeigh Tipton, Ryan Metcalf, Hugo Becker, Adam Brody
Director: Whit Stillman
Writer: Whit Stillman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexual material
Running Time: 99 minutes
Script - 7
Performance - 7
Direction - 6
Cinematography - 6
Music/Sound - 5
Editing - 6
Production - 7
Total - 6.7 out of 10.0