|Carrie MacLemore (Heather); Megalyn Echikuwoke (Rose); Greta Gerwig (Violet);
Analeigh Tipton (Lily) and Adam Brody (Charlie) in Whit Stillman's
charming DAMSELS IN DISTRESS.
In recent years, the Surprise Film at the London Film Fest has swung between the uncontroversially superb (THE WRESTLER) to the uncontroversially bad (CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY) to the boringly undiscussed (BRIGHTON ROCK). But with this year's selection, the Festival's Artistic Director, Sandra Hebron, threw a stick of dynamite into the audience. Her valedictory choice, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, is like the cinematic equivalent of Marmite - you either love it or you hate it. And, dear readers, I absolutely adored it! It's a movie with a very particular visual style, and a very particular type of dialogue - but its concerns are relatable, touching and occasionally hilarious. I simply floated out of the screening, and to my mind, this is the *real* stand-out feel-good movie of the festival, even surpassing THE ARTIST. I defy anyone who has seen it not to have a wry smile when thinking about Cathars, to introduce the phrase "player-operator" to their vocabulary, or to try The Sambola. This is simply a hands-down wonderful movie that is an absolute delight to watch. Not to mention the fact that it's a worthy successor to Whit Stillman's iconic early 1990s flick, METROPOLITAN, and the Sally Fowler Rat Pack.
What's the movie about? Stuff everyone can relate to. It's about going to college and trying to reinvent yourself. It's about deciding what kind of person you want to be - what ideals you want to pursue - and how to cope with sharky boyfriends, frat-house idiots, bad break-ups, and what happens when the person on whom you have a crush likes your best friend instead. It's about how good friends can get you out of an emotional tailspin. And it's fundamentally an uplifting tale of good friends trouncing the mean blues - and how simple things like a wonderful song or a dance craze can make a big difference. Yes it's earnest, yes it's sunny, but it also doesn't shy away from some really serious stuff - handled with a light-touch and comedic air that belies their truth - towit, the "Cathar" incident.....
I simply loved the casting. Greta Gerwig (GREENBERG) is simply charming as "Violet", the emotionally fragile, but outwardly self-assured leader of the group of girls who see their mission as civilising the male-dominated great books college that they attend. As Lily, Analeigh Tipton (CRAZY, STUPID LOVE) perfectly captures the way in which new kids try on a new group of friends before having the self-confidence to pull back. In the smaller roles, Megalyn Echikunwoke (CSI MIAMI) steals scenes as Rose, with her deliberately cod English accent and catchphrase about "player-operators". By contrast, Carrie MacLemore, as Heather, is rather short-changed. And before you think this is an entirely female affair, be assured that the guys garner plenty of laughs too, particularly Billy Magnussen's hilarious dumb frat-boy, Thor. But even more than the performances and the classically deliberate, almost archaic, and yet bitingly acerbic Whit Stillman dialogue, I just loved the look of the film. All crumbling college buildings, pastel pretty dresses and sunlit dance routines in gardens.
I'm not denying that DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is a very unique and particular movie. I can't deny that it's unique look, dialogue and style will be anathema to many a mainstream audience member, and particularly men. But for anyone who delights in the quirky, unique Stillman style, this movie is a welcome return to our screens. For anyone who welcomes a darkly comic look at universally relatable material, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is a pure delight.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS played Toronto and London 2011. It does not have a commercial release date yet.