We Found It On Streaming: DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (2012)

Image via Sony Pictures Classics

You know the film. It’s a film you have never heard of. The cast might be composed of actors you know and love or complete unknowns. You stumble across it on streaming and wonder if it will be worth two hours of your time. This series will be devoted to reviewing films like these, the strange items that pop up when you are looking for a flick on the streaming service of your choice. This is “We Found It On Streaming”

Image via Sony Pictures Classics

FILM: Damsels in Distress

Release Date: April 6, 2012

Run Time: 99 Minutes.

Streaming Service(s): Hulu, Amazon Prime Video

Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content including some sexual material

Whit Stillman burst on the scene in 1990 with Metropolitan, a humorous look at high society and debutant culture in New York City. It was a big hit at Sundance and the festival circuit that year, earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen and he was anointed the next big thing.

Stillman made his studio debut in 1994 with Barcelona, which made a number of critics top ten lists for the year. He followed that in 1998 with The Last Days of Disco.

And then he disappeared. He spent the next 12 years working on projects that went nowhere before he finally returned to the big screen. The film that brought him back was Damsels in Distress.

This film takes place in a small New England college. Lily (Lio Tipton) is a recent transfer student who is drawn into the clique of Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke). The trio has a goal of making the campus a much better place by running a suicide prevention center, dating unattractive men to boost the man’s self-esteem and trying to get the hygienically challenged Doar Dorm to clean up their act. 

Image via Sony Pictures Classics

I guess that I should throw out this caveat here. Metropolitan is one of my favorite films of all time. It would definitely be one of the films I would take on a desert island with me. I am pretty far removed from the debutant society in NYC, but I was drawn in by Stillman’s dialogue and characterization. So, I was predisposed to like this film.

If I was to be witty in describing this film, I’d call it what would result if Jane Austen wrote a Marx Brothers film. A more down to Earth description would be quirky people doing quirky things in quirky ways. Both descriptions are valid.

How quirky? Well, the way Violet prefers to stop suicidal people from being suicidal is through the power of dance. Tap dance in particular. That is the level of quirkiness we are dealing with here.

As usual, Stillman’s dialogue is the star of the show. When it is at its best, it sounds like improvisational jazz being played by master musicians. The flow and cadences, the repetition or words, the impeccable timing, all add up to making the film a joy to behold.

Image via Sony Pictures Classics

However, unlike Metropolitan, which had similar whip-smart dialogue but eventually surprised you when it ended up with a plot, you’ll find no such luck here. This is a farce, albeit one of the most serious farces I have ever seen (Suicide is a through line of the film. You don’t see that in many farces). There are plot threads here. Some are wrapped up by the end, but the film is more of an exercise in stream of consciousness filmmaking than conventional storytelling. If you like your films to have a definite beginning, middle and an end, you should definitely skip this one.

I am usually one of those people, but I loved the writing so much that it carried me along to the end. There are several moments where I laughed out loud, and that rarely happens for me these days.

Of course, good dialogue can be ruined if you do not have good actors delivering it. Stillman does not have that problem here. He found a gem in Gerwig, who delivers Stillman’s words with an erudite tone, but still manages to deliver all the emotion and feeling her character needs to portray. Gerwig seems to be mostly focused on directing now, and the success of Barbie should provide her with a lot of work in that area, but I would hope she doesn’t give up acting entirely.

Image via Sony Pictures Classics

Tipton is solid as the viewpoint character, Lily. They are an underrated actress who has given a lot of good performances in a diverse array of films. Adam Brody does well in the Chris Eigeman part of Fred. And Aubrey Plaza, Billy Magnusson and Zack Woods do well in smaller roles.

Stillman has made other films since Damsels in Distress, and his script for 2016’s Love & Friendship landed on the list of Oscar Hopefuls, and he has a television series, The Splendid Affinities, that he is developing. I’m glad to see he is still actively working. Damsels in Distress might not be to everyone’s liking, but it does show viewers what makes Whit Stillman a great talent. I’d recommend you give it a shot.

Have you found a film on streaming that you’d like us to look at? Leave it in the comments and it might appear in a future installment of this feature. 

Avatar für William Gatevackes
About William Gatevackes 2022 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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