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Young, eccentric damsels discover the wit in distress

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SDLqYOU must have a high threshold of pain. That will serve you well here at Seven Oaks."

So says college student Violet (Greta Gerwig) to new incoming freshman Lily (Analeigh Tipton) in an informal and comically forboding indoctrination tour of Seven Oaks College, a shabby East Coast institution of higher learning.

Violet, the alpha female of a trio of altruistic busybodies, welcomes Lily into their solicitous circle.

Among their other pursuits, they volunteer at the college's Suicide Prevention Centre (the word "Prevention" sometimes goes missing from the sign) where Lily first realizes these women may not have any more psychological stability than the students to whom they proffer help.

The film's writer-director Whit Stillman is a singular American talent in film, dispensing a combo of wit and earnest youthfulness in his three films Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco.

Damsels in Distress more or less follows in that template. The film follows a multitude of young and prematurely eccentric characters, including a college student who skipped kindergarten and thus still doesn't know colours and a grad student (Adam Brody) working on his thesis concerning the quality decline in contemporary decadence.

The institution itself is likewise afflicted. The school's faculty of education has a balcony on the second floor that is considered dangerous because it is the scene of so many unsuccessful suicide attempts.

"What concerns me is, if they can't even destroy themselves, how are they going to teach America's youth?" says Violet's friend Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke).

But Gerwig's Violet is the film's queen of gentle crazy, the suicide prevention volunteer who is herself subject to crippling bouts of depression, but has made her life's goal to "start an international dance craze" to really contribute to society.

There is an indication Stillman may be getting more playful as he gets older. The film is, as in Stillman's other films, pleasurably verbose, but it wraps up in a lovely-goofy manner. Earlier, Violet asserts that tap-dancing is an excellent form of therapy against depression. That being the case, a full-blown musical number constitutes a miracle cure, at least in Stillman's universe.

Works for me.

Other Voices

Selected excerpts from reviews of Damsels in Distress.

Damsels in Distress ambles about amiably without much of a narrative: Plot has never been Stillman's strong suit, and in this film he seems particularly indifferent to its demands.

-- Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald

It's a slight piece of work, but agreeably peculiar and endearing.

-- Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune

It's a little more complex than it sounds, and much funnier, thanks to Stillman's ear for pompous dialogue and fondness for inspired running gags.

-- Norman Wilner, Now magazine

A movie sure to reward the filmmaker's most die-hard fans, while doing little to quiet critics who found his work self-conscious to the point of insufferability.

-- Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

Gilded by a giddy Greta Gerwig, Damsels In Distress is a sharp, daffy, eccentric delight. Stillman may be an acquired taste, but no-one else is making films like this.

-- Ian Freer, Empire magazine

Worth seeing twice (at least), Damsels represents nothing less than a great movie about a goofy world -- an articulate swoon of smarts posing as stupidity.

-- Matt Pais, Redeye

It's delightful and a little bewildering to find a 2012 comedy that evokes a world that exists only in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse.

-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

-- Compiled by Shane Minkin

Movie Review

Damsels in Distress

Starring Greta Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton

Grant Park


97 minutes

4 stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2012 D4

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