If you've seen the words "campus comedy" next to any blurbs for Damsels in Distress, coupled with a picture of the lovely girls above, I BEG YOU to not to switch off your minds. This isn't Animal House, or Greek, or Van Wilder - it's not even Mean Girls. This is a completely different breed of film - I can guarantee if you're below the age of 30 you won't have seen anything like this before. And if you have - then chances are you're a Whit Stillman fan and I envy you as I'm only just now discovering his genius (and the kind of impact he has had on directors since, including Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. If you're a fan of those two then you need to see Damsels immediately). It's difficult really to place this film into any kind of genre, but it has that timeless, broad appeal that will delight just about anyone if you really invest some time with these damsels.
Of which there are three: Violet (Indie Queen Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) who room together at the fictional Sevenoaks Campus and strive to help fellow students from killing themselves, from feeling depressed, from social indiscretions and from low standards of any kind. Their three main hubs are Doar Dorm - a house of particularly dumb guys; The Daily Complainer, the local newsrag which is full of "elitists"; and their own Suicide Prevention Centre, a place for students to come and eat free donuts, unload all their problems and solve them in a way that is constructive and therapeutic - tap dancing. Learning all of this with us is new girl Lily (Analeigh Tiption), plucked from registration by Violet to join the girls in their quest to make campus life as clean living and socially compatible as possible. And the main course of their distress? Boys - at least trying to find one who is a perfect match both psychologically (not cooler than you) and algebraically (survival of the fittest). And he's got to smell good, too. But how does someone with such perfectly crafted etiquette cope with the complexities of love and friendship? This is familiar college angst, but then not as you know it.
I saw this on the Opening Night of the Bradford Film Festival (now in full swing, folks) and I couldn't think of a better way to kick off a festival than with Damsels in Distress. It's a bucket load of joy. By timeless I mean you could watch this film at any point during your day and it would still manage to utterly transform it with its whimsical charm. There's no conventional plot - it feels like lots of little chapters all coming together over the course of a college year - the film is neatly divided in that way too, with winksome titles and commentary. And the cinematography is just gorgeous - not just the autumnal haze which seems to glisten the Sevenoaks campus, but the way the girls are shot too - in golden hues, their profiles bathed in sunlight which just adds to that glowing, woozy ambiance. Not only do we get that flush of nature (the girls all have floral names), but colour, and colourful characters, makes up such a huge part of this film. The original damsels all dress the same in girlish, preppy pastels (indeed, the girls even swap clothes throughout the film, which I thought was a gorgeously deft touch on college girls rooming together), a contrast to the outsiders/newbies of the group such as Lily and Priss who wear darker, grungier clothes.
Whit Stillman's previous films (of which there have only been three) have all centred on middle class, preppy liberal youngsters who spend a lot of their time just talking about everyone, and there's no change here except for the characters are nowhere near as ghastly and as unattractive as that sounds. They are all fabulous and so well-realised: Stillman is a master in developing sympathetic and curious characters, and takes such care with them to mould them into people we can truly enjoy. They're just as clueless as the boys in the Doar Dorm! You get a real feel for who they all are: Violet's troubled backstory as Emily Tweeter, Rose's fake but prolonging British accent, Heather's fond naivety and trouble distinguishing her Xs from her Zs, and Lily's struggles to fit in with this new, odd bunch of people. But just as much as our protagonists, the array of wonderfully sharp secondary characters is a wonder to behold too: Violet's boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) who's like an excitable dog - complete with beanball - who's never stopped to consider the colour of his eyes before, and poor Thor (Billy Magnussen) who hasn't stopped to consider any colours before. Adam Brody shows off his goofy side playing at first 'playboy operator' Charlie who soon dissolves into his real identity, Fred Packenstacker, a boy just as passionate about new dance crazes as Violet is. Some welcome cameos as well from Aubrey Plaza and Alia Shawkat as sour students, and even the people Violet meets in the Diner off campus after she has gone away to deal with her 'tailspin' and discover the soap to save all mankind are brilliant. The only dud note was probably Lily's Cathar-following boyfriend Xavier, who is played by Hugo Becker (personal grievance here, I can't stand him as Prince Louis on Gossip Girl).
It could be Greta Gerwig's best - she has such a spot-on delivery and is two, three, four dimensionally Violet. But the rest of the cast are fantastic too - and especially Analeigh Tipton who plays Lily, who I know as the cute girl next door contestant on Cycle 11 of America's Top Model - she came third that year (behind Samantha and McKee) but stood out with some amazing pictures like this:
It's amazing to think how far she's come!
I should also mention that not only is Stillman a superb character craftsman, he also writes eloquent, razor sharp scripts and has a mean sense of humour - there were a handful of proper lolling in the aisle moments here, as well as perpetual grin-inducing one-liners and observations along the way. The humour is very off-beat and yes, most in tone with Wes Anderson from the tiny scale of films that I've watched. But delicious. That being said, the tone is light and feels almost quaint - there's no danger or malice or even mean-spiritedness to be seen in this film. It's only clumsy mis-step would be the decision to cut the rating from a 15 to a 12A so the younger crowds can see it - in doing so they've had to cut out an anal sex subplot/joke (really), which isn't actually completed removed, meaning the film veers oddly for a few moments before finding its balance again. It doesn't spoil the film, it just makes me wonder if 12 year olds should be watching this at all! It will capture many girl's hearts just as films like Clueless and Mean Girls did previously, but I think this is destined for a more cult status - like a lighter, funnier Virgin Suicides. It's quirky and a bit off-kilter, but it's the perfect warm hearted adolescence film. But that doesn't mean to say adults won''t enjoy it either - everyone in the cinema loved it.
And the magic of Damsels in Distress is that it just feels so relevant - whilst it's set in the modern day you could be forgiven for thinking it's the 1950s - neck kerchiefs, tea dresses, no mobile phones or computers, choreographed dancing being the main social activity...with vintage and throwbacks being very in at the moment this naturally feels cool. And I normally hate musical numbers of any kind (see Mirror Mirror) but here it is so beautifully realised - Violet launching her new dance craze to the masses, the Sambola - that I just can't be mad at it. Violet can come across a tad pretentious and smug, but she is completely lovable here and again all credit goes to Gerwig's affability, and Stillman's charm - you just want her to succeed. And this film also boasts the best soundtrack I've heard since Heartbeats last year - I might just go out and buy it!
This was my first Whit Stillman, and now the gates have been opened I can't wait to discover everything else in his back catalogue, starting with The Last Days of Disco at the HPPH on May 3rd. Let's hope it's not another 13 years before his next feature as that would just be a filmic catastrophe of epic proportions. A big shout out to the BFF as well with all their Damsels related freebies we got before and after the screening - FREE SOAP!
A unique oddball gem of a film, Damsels in Distress is pure joy and gibberish rainbows - I can't wait to watch it again. And all the best films have tap dancing in them...