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:: Damsels In Distress

After screening on closing night at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Whit Stillman’s warm, good-natured comedy Damsels in Distress finally makes it to Australian shores.

We follow a trio of girls, led by the strong-willed if somewhat eccentric Violet (superbly played by Greta Gerwig), who set out to revolutionize the male-dominated, grungy college campus of Seven Oaks. They take sophomore Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under their wing and assist her in settling in. Along the way they encounter love, challenging both the girls’ friendship and sanity, as they strive to both subvert campus life and cure the depressed through a program of tap dance and good hygiene.

Offering an alternate perspective on college life, the film does not condemn or even judge the thick-headed buffoonery of the male college demographic, but rather pities them. According to our heroines, these are people in need—mentally, civilly and hygienically. And it is Violet’s damsels whom are there to help. While their world is one of social and sanitary injustice, it is nonetheless awash with a pink-hazed, valium-induced calm inspired by an undying optimism.

The characters, while unique and downright strange, are openly and honestly self-aware. There is an undeniable comfort experienced when in each other’s presence, a comfort the audience is quick to share. It’s their honesty that makes their airy condescension charming and endearing and is what the audience comes to admire. A quiet confidence of purpose, never more strongly embodied than in Violet, and a heartfelt conviction drives their modest cause—they are not necessarily trying to change the world, but simply trying to change their patch.

The film works as a combination of the self-aware, dialogue-driven nature of Juno and the unique worldview of a more feminised and purposeful Napolean Dynamite—it even culminates in not one but two dance routines! And I can’t help but describe Violet, both in terms of purpose and disposition, as a contemporary counterpart to Stella Gibbons’ Flora from the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm.

It is only when the film strays from its central character group—especially Violet—that it finds its weakness. Some scenes strike as pointless and thin, and consequently the latter stages of the film unravel in a slight mess, contradicting the characters’ values of neatness and hygiene. It is a charming yarn but one with frayed ends. The film is no doubt at it’s strongest when following the girls as they float, seemingly above, the college institution, and offer their unique, satirical commentary on campus life and the greater world.

Damsels in Distress is cute, charming, sweet and all-over positive. It’s a comedy that leaves a smile on your face; a comedy whose eccentricity prevents it from melting away into the obscure periphery of its more generic genre kin. It’s a lot of fun and one of the more memorable comedies of recent years.