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With: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Adam Brody, Hugo Becker, Ryan Metcalf, Billy Magnussen
Written by: Whit Stillman
Directed by: Whit Stillman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content including some sexual material
Running Time: 99
Date: 09/10/2011

Damsels in Distress (2012)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Dancing with 'Damsels'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Let's get it out of the way right now that Whit Stillman has not made a movie in 13 years, since The Last Days of Disco (1998). Though fans speculated the worst, he was very simply writing scripts and not finding financing for them. Regardless of how he felt about all this, he seems to have emerged, refreshed, with his fourth film, Damsels in Distress. It's lighter on its feet than his previous films, still witty and bracing, and perhaps even brighter and more colorful than ever before. It's a treat.

It takes place at an East Coast college campus, where Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) fancy themselves the arbiters of good taste and refinement. They run the suicide prevention center (in a brilliant joke, the "prevention" part of the sign keeps falling down), giving out donuts to those in need. They also lead a tap dancing club to raise spirits. But most of all, they try to teach the dopiest, lamest boys about how to be proper men.

On the first day of school, the girls spot a new recruit, the pretty, awkward Lily (Analeigh Tipton). From there, they set out on many adventures with boys, campus life, and Violet's dream to start a new dance craze: the "Sambola." One of the best touches is Lily's boyfriend, Frank (Ryan Metcalf), who breaks her heart. Somehow Stillman portrays Frank as a complete idiot, but one who has some endearing charms; his single-minded responses are wonderful in their simplicity.

The criticisms that have been leveled at Stillman -- whose other films are Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994) -- over the years still remain true. He focuses more on dialogue and character than on mise-en-scene or structure. But even if the film isn't technically tight as a drum, at least it's highly satisfying on many other levels. It's that rare example of a brainy comedy that ventures into the physical (sex, dancing, etc.). In a world where too many writer/directors try to imitate Woody Allen, Stillman is more focused on that awkward, fascinating point at which the intellect meets the body.

A note on Analeigh Tipton: in this and in Crazy, Stupid, Love, she has created a winning character. she's both beautiful and cute, but also awkward and uncertain. She's tall and thin, but also a bit angular. In short, she's approachable and your heart goes out to her. Hollywood is good at burning out promising young actresses, but if Ms. Tipton can continue in this vein, she will be a national treasure. (This is not to take away from the multi-talented Ms. Gerwig, who seems to have been born for a Stillman picture.)

Damsels in Distress is almost old-fashioned in its values: Dancing? Culture? Manners? Sparkling dialogue? How charming! It arrives like a little, real-life daffodil springing forth in a cold field of digital flowers.
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