what i watched last week
happy birthday, six and boomer

by request: damsels in distress (whit stillman, 2012)

(This was requested by Jeff Pike.)

This is how a request concept should work. Whit Stillman is an Oscar-nominated writer/director of note, yet I’ve never seen any of his movies. Having someone you trust make a suggestion to fill a gap like that is a good thing. And now I’ve seen a Whit Stillman film.

Damsels in Distress is a bit like Heathers without the meanness. Of course, without the meanness, there isn’t much to Heathers, so the comparison isn’t a very good one (although the mean factor may explain why I like Heathers more than I liked Damsels in Distress … I’m a mean guy). Damsels has also been compared to Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture, and her TV series, Girls, and that comparison makes more sense. Like Dunham’s work, Damsels in Distress is about a particularly narrow slice of humanity, the well-to-do (if not rich) young college-educated women who have the opportunity to find themselves without worrying about their student loans. There is something oddly charming about Stillman’s characters, here. His sense of irony is very low-key, and he isn’t exactly making fun of people like the frat boys who don’t know their colors (that’s why they go to college, to learn what they don’t already know). He just thinks that, as the Gershwin song at the end of the film tells us, “things are looking up”. That there are plenty of people for whom things are not looking up is irrelevant here, since those people don’t populate the movie, anymore than they show up in Girls.

Some of the dialogue is witty, and it’s good to see young people speaking in complete sentences. The film may make more sense if you already have a feel for the Whit Stillman universe. I kept wanting it to be about something. I’m fine with character studies, but I don’t think that’s what Stillman was after … none of the people in Damsels in Distress resemble “real” people, and I doubt they are supposed to. It’s likely that Stillman has made exactly the movie he wanted to make, which deserves credit, even if I admit I’m not the audience for it. I’m reminded of Wes Anderson, another quirky film maker who creates entire worlds on film that don’t connect with me, personally.

I keep coming back to Heathers. The Heathers were seen, from the beginning of the film, to be an unlikable, mean-spirited bunch. Their appeal to Wynona Ryder’s Veronica was obvious, but she never got completely sucked in, and we were never supposed to think the Heathers were admirable. Since Damsels in Distress lacks meanness, its core characters aren’t as bad as the Heathers, but I found them a bit less than likable, and wished Lily (the Veronica character in the film) would have dumped these new friends long before the film ended. 6/10.

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