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The Independent Critic

Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Aja Naomi King, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore
Whit Stillman
Rated PG-13
99 Mins.
Sony Classics

 "Damsels in Distress" Review 
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Having the misfortune to open alongside The Avengers in Indianapolis this weekend, Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress is a vastly superior film destined to see a mere small percentage of the mega-budgeted The Avengers in terms of box-office receipts.

That's a shame.

Damsels in Distress isn't a film for everyone, but if you've ever fancied yourself a fan of Whit Stillman's films (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) then you'll most assuredly appreciate the film and Stillman's always unique sensibility and cinematic structure.

To be sure, Damsels in Distress is unique even by Stillman's lofty standards for uniqueness. While Stillman isn't and likely never will be a household name, he's garnered quite the reputation for earnest stories and characters seen through an almost absurdist lens. Damsels in Distress ups the ante in terms of the absurdity, but it's so beautifully written and incredibly well acted that if you're able  to surrender to it, as I did, then it's a film that you should find completely captivating.

In the film, a group of rather snobbish college women make it their mission to "help" their far more slovenly and downwardly inspired classmates. These young women are led by Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), perhaps the most endearing of the trio. They are eventually joined by transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who doesn't completely align with their mission and, as such, complicates matters and causes stress. Violet goes so far as to take up with Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a rather motley boyfriend whom she considers not much more than a social work project, then Charlie (Adam Brody).

Into this universe, Stillman gets loopier and loopier and loopier.

You could add Parker Posey, Christina Ricci and Wes Anderson and still not get a communal circle quite this strange yet incredibly appealing

This is Stillman's first film since 1998's The Last Days of Disco, a far too long absence for one of the indie world's best cinematic voices. As always, Stillman weaves in beautiful touches such as, in this case, the Sambola, Violet's favored dance and one for which she's determined to create an international dance craze. It's a weird touch in a weird but wonderful film that actually works immensely.

I wish I could tell you how completely I fell in love with Greta Gerwig's performance here as Violet, a young woman simultaneously smarmy, snobbish and, in all likelihood, completely freakin' nuts. Her performance reminds me a bit of Christina Ricci's in the underrated Pumpkin, a performance that is somehow both exhilarating and completely off-balance. Gerwig is worthy of an Independent Spirit nomination here, though it almost goes without saying that the film itself is destined to wildly savaged by a few misguided souls who will either find it pretentious, strange for the sake of being strange or mundane.

It is none of these things.

This is the Gerwig that almost came to the surface in the equally underrated Greenberg, a marvelous under-the-radar Ben Stiller film seen by about 15 people nationwide. Gerwig was awesome in that flick, but she's even better here. She's also surrounded by a terrific cast including an awesome Analeigh Tipton, perhaps the only one here who at least tries to flirt with being normal, and Adam Brody, whose enthusiastic embrace of Violet's wildly out-of-balance world would seem completely insane if he wasn't so completely sincere.

I've yet to see a Whit Stillman film in which I couldn't become completely immersed, yet I can say unequivocally that Damsels in Distress is his most unique and most satisfying film yet. Stillman has cast the film beautifully with a cast that seems to clearly get what he's trying to accomplish, and even Stillman's production team does a stellar job of creating the world in which our damsels can save the world through dance, doughnuts and much more.

Mark Suozzo's original music is as loopy as the dialogue it companions, while Doug Emmett's camera work is completely stellar in the way that it captures the lunacy without ever making fun of the people involved. The production design by Elizabeth J. Jones nicely evokes the normalcy of a fictitious college campus and the abnormalcy of the campus life.

Damsels in Distress is currently in limited nationwide release around the country with Sony Classics and does open in Indianapolis this weekend at Keystone Art Cinema on Indy's northside. While I'm not quite willing to say "Just skip The Avengers," I will say that your week won't be complete if you don't give this destined to be indie classic a chance and introduce yourself to the wonderful world of Whit Stillman.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic