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Movie Review

Damsels in Distress

Damsels in Distress
Greta Gerwig (left) and Analeigh Tipton in "Damsels in Distress"

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Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content including some sexual material. 1 hour, 39 minutes.
Publication date: Publication Date Apr. 13, 2012
Review by Peter Canavese
Released: (2012)

Arch in the extreme, Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress" plays like a Todd Solondz movie on Prozac. The characters are quirky outsiders, but they kind of like it that way, and they're determined to change the world, one dance at a time.

This muddled fourth feature from writer-director Stillman ("The Last Days of Disco") tackles campus life at Seven Oaks, an East Coast college that's a hotbed of -- well, nothing, really. That's part of the joke, as Stillman follows a de facto "Youth Outreach" group, made up of three co-eds, that swims against the tide of ennui and cynicism. In the film's first scene, leader-of-the-pack Violet (Greta Gerwig) picks Lily (Analeigh Tipton) out of the crowd of New Student Orientation and invites her to join Violet, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) in their various campus campaigns.

Lily serves as an audience surrogate, looking with bemusement on these strange individuals and wondering if they're crazy or, perhaps more disconcertingly, right on the money. "You probably think we're frivolous, empty-headed, perfume-obsessed college coeds," Violet offers. "You're probably right. I often feel empty headed, but we're also trying to make a difference in people's lives." That's the film in a nutshell: Stillman cultivates an equivocal tone about these flower-dubbed anti-"Heathers" of the East.

The women's mission includes raising the campus' fashion consciousness (no "grunge"), eliminating distressing odors, and working at suicide prevention by offering donuts, coffee and supposedly depression-alleviating tap-dance lessons. Meanwhile, Violet's master plan to achieve personal greatness is to serve humanity by creating a new dance craze.

There are men here, too, but they're ill-equipped for rescue. Most are either fratboy dolts (Ryan Metcalf's admittedly amusing Frank) or snotty smarties (Zach Woods' Rick). Stillman holds out hope for earnest dummy Thor (Billy Magnussen) and the slippery but charming Charlie (Adam Brody) as the girls do various two-steps in search of the right partner.

Violet's subversive happiness patrol might be entertaining and even inspiring if we saw any evidence that the young women's ideas were savvy and productive ones, but Stillman keeps showing us the dimwittedness of it all. And by the time he starts giving us lame song-and-dance sequences, all we can do is throw up our hands, and not in dance-craze euphoria.

Since the halfwitty "Damsels in Distress" wants to have it both ways, its satire is about as cutting as a plastic knife through a porterhouse. Stillman establishes Violet, Rose and Heather as naive, self-unaware characters but the ways in which he reveals their vulnerabilities suggest we oughtn't rush to judge them. As humane as that sounds, the chilly tone of the script and the performances hold viewers at arm's length and leave them much more perplexed than enlightened about human behavior, if indeed we've seen anything like it for the last hour and a half.

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