Girl talk – Damsels in Distress review

Damsels in Distress – Starring Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, and Adam Brody. Directed by Whit Stillman. Rated M. By Jess Lomas.

Damsels in Distress plays the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 10, 2012. It arrives in Melbourne cinemas September 6, 2012.

While it’s been fourteen years since Whit Stillman’s last movie, The Last Days of Disco, was released, his filmmaking garners less attention than the similarly sporadic Terrence Malick. He returns with Damsels in Distressanother female centric story, this time of three friends at Seven Oaks College who front the on-campus suicide prevention centre, hoping a combination of dance and a higher level of personal hygiene will cure the university’s depressed students. They also seek to improve the lives of their peers in various ways, including am ambitious attempt to start a new global dance craze, the Sambola.

At the start of the feature, Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), recruit transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) to guide her in matters of style and romance. There’s a definite Heathers vibe to this trio at the start, as they dress in pastel colours and share each other’s clothes. They also encounter their fair share of boy problems, with Charlie (Adam Brody), Xavier (Hugo Becker), Frank (Ryan Metcalf) and Thor (Billy Magnussun) competing for their affections with varying degrees of success and hilarity.

Stillman’s style will alienate some viewers, but those fond of his previous offerings Metropolitan and Barcelona should be delighted by this witty and offbeat college saga. Here we have a film set at college that deals with fraternities and doesn’t settle for cheap jokes but impresses with its intellectual ideas.

Claiming writer and director credits, Stillman’s screenplay delivers biting dialogue, just as his previous pictures did, which demand both your attention and repeat viewings to appreciate. While some may whittle this down to “hipster” or elitist talk, it is in fact refreshingly well written and reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s screwball comedies. One can’t help but imagine Stillman’s dialogue exploding from the mouths of Katharine Hepburn or Cary Grant.

Stillman draws out terrific performances from his entire cast. From Gerwig’s matter-of-fact Violet, to the hilarious turns from Metcalf and Magnussun – as meat-headed frat boys who never learned the names of colours – each actor brings a surprisingly unique outlook on college life, one where the social media generation is pleasantly absent. Stillman’s world instead includes colourful dance numbers, intellectual conversations, and free doughnuts for the clinically depressed.

A smart, refreshing, and charming film with strong and memorable performances; one can only hope we don’t have to wait another fourteen years to hear from Stillman again.

3.5/5

Damsels in Distress plays the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 10, 2012. It arrives in Melbourne cinemas September 6, 2012.

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