March 1, 2013

Damsels in Distress (2012)

Damsels in Distress, directed by Whit Stillman

Exactly two years ago, my first post for Public Transportation Snob appeared. It was about Sixteen Candles and started a marathon of ‘80s comedies that I’d previously missed. The time has flown by since that point, and it’s mind-boggling to see the 440 posts listed on the site. My original plan was to do a review once a week, and that pace quickly escalated to a lot more. It becomes an addiction even when few people are reading it. Getting the chance to interact with other movie fans through this blog and on podcasts makes it even more fun. Although there are thousands of people doing a similar thing, the Internet is still the Wild West. We’re all stumbling through the dark and trying to find our niche. I’m still figuring out exactly what I’m trying to do here, and the approach is constantly evolving.

A common question that I get about this blog is the origins of the name. After deciding on the marathons format, it was challenging to come up with something that felt unique. I’d recently watched Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, and one of my favorite throwaway lines involves the phrase “public transportation snob”. Chris Eigeman’s snarky character gives his trademark deadpan style in this scene, and it’s one of my favorites. Also, this name felt right because I typically commute to work by train. That isn’t an easy feat in St. Louis, but it works because our house is close to a station. While I’m not sure Public Transportation Snob was the best move to get a larger audience, it still feels like the perfect fit. In honor of this second anniversary and the blog name, I’m going to review the latest film by Stillman. Damsels in Distress was his first movie in 14 years, and it more than lived up to the hype.

Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody in Damsels in Distress

Although Stillman is hardly a household name, he’s built a dedicated following who were thrilled by the prospect of another film. I am one of those people. It’s impossible to look at Damsels in Distress without acknowledging my bias towards enjoying this movie. That said, there’s still plenty to recommend if this is your first Stillman experience. The story exists in a fantasy of college life where idealistic young women believe they can truly change the crude guys on campus. Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her fellow ladies try to rescue fellow students with unconventional methods. For example, their suicide prevention program mostly involves handing out donuts and coffee. When Lily (Analeigh Tipton) comes under their wing, she discovers that Violet isn’t so put together as she might seem. The ring leader puts on a good show and is trying to start a new dance craze, but that doesn’t mean it’s all roses in her background. It doesn't take much to push her towards depression.

This story is difficult to cover because it sounds messier than it is on screen. Stillman excels at a certain type of wit that transcends conventional storytelling. His movies are at their best when characters are just talking about authors, music, and the nuances of life. Stillman’s 1990 debut Metropolitan mostly involves people hanging out at “deb” parties, and the difference from typical indies is refreshing. There’s a delightful rejection of structure that stands out even more in his latest movie. If you aren’t willing to take the ride and follow the characters wherever they go, you’ll likely reject the film. The vibrant dialogue snaps and has bite without really going after the goofy characters. Even the dim-witted guys who populate the campus aren’t viewed as idiots. Violet pities their faults, and Stillman is right there with her. It helps that we never feel like this is meant to be a real-life campus. This movie has the least connections with real life, particularly in the way it presents college.

Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, released in 2012

Romance blooms with several characters, including the wonderfully named Fred Packenstacker (Adam Brody). The tone is so light that even the challenges of love don’t feel that heavy. Each time a dance number takes over, it's fitting since we’re living in a cheery world. The subplot with the sexual religion of Xavier (Hugo Becker) doesn’t work, but it’s presented with the same glossy approach. When he quickly switches from these practices, it lessens the negative impact of his earlier proclivities. This is clearly a guy who’s stumbling through life and grabbing onto random fixations. The cast also includes familiar television faces like Megalyn Echikunwoke (The 4400), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) and Jermaine Crawford (Dukie from The Wire), and they all fit comfortably. Although Greta Gerwig is wonderful, it's the supporting players that make this movie. My favorite scene occurs in a diner and has Violet chatting with characters that we never see again. It's these random moments of wit like that make returning to this movie so rewarding.

Similar to The Last Days of Disco, Stillman focuses on the young women. Gerwig (Greenberg) is charming as Violet and brings a clever insecurity to her confident exterior. Gerwig is a rising star, and that trend should continue with Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Analeigh Tipton's Lily is actually our entry point into this world, and she does a nice job showing the confusion over their odd methods. She feels more like a real-life college student who’s been pulled into this idealized world. The differences between Violet and Lily feel stark at the beginning and grow slimmer as their understanding increases. Stillman’s writing never lets them down and keeps us engaged right up the end. Even when the story takes a left turn at the conclusion, it feels right for this unconventional tale. We leave with the happy characters dancing the night away and ready to face any challenge.

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