Retro Movie Review: 'Damsels in Distress' (2011)

When “Damsels in Distress” begins, it is hard to ignore its “Mean Girls” leanings. After all, they have quite a bit in common. A new girl arrives at school (Analeigh Tipton). She is quickly taken under the wing of a female clique (Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore). Heading the group is an intimidating blonde leader, Gerwig’s Violet.

Slightly naïve and clearly out of place, Lily (Tipton) needs help navigating the world of a liberal arts college inhabited by the dimmest students imaginable. Writing your name on the application is the only academic field necessary to be accepted. Throughout the movie, some characters who seem incapable of accomplishing that small feat emerge.

Not stupid and strikingly so, Violet is a rambling expression of big ideas, values, and philosophies. Effusive and passionate, she quickly becomes the story’s heart as her idealism is shaken by betrayal.

It is easy to empathize with Violet. Her effervescent optimism is infectious, and Greta Gerwig brings her bubbling to life with a magnetism that grounds her zaniness into a relatable force. Violet’s embraced her strangeness to the degree that she’s forgotten that she was ever that peculiar, banishing the scars of a ridiculed past.

What remains is a plucky co-ed struggling to marry the refinement of the past with the lost gentility of the present. That Violet has two followers/friends is a bit of movie magic. The real world tends to stomp out someone as unique and outspoken as Violet. 

In the “Damsels in Distress” world, Violet has managed to thrive as an oddball. While she is embraced by some, Violet goes mostly underappreciated by her peers. They struggle to see how much of a pretty amazing person she really is.

Seeming to have pranced right out of a Woody Allen movie, Violet is the best part of a rather out-of-this-world flick. “Damsels in Distress” could have just as easily been titled “The Hipster Guidebook to Life: Everything You Need to Know About Feeling Superior, Dressing Cool and Pretending to Comprehend the Ironic.”

Walt Stillman’s script is a biting indictment that hits on a few truths. It comes undone as it gains too much scatterbrained energy. Due to an interlude as a musical, the pace comes to a crawl, turning the first twenty minutes into something incredibly baffling. It also has a way of talking down to its audience, attempting to zip dialogue by so quickly that you feel too exasperated to even try making sense of it.

As a satire on the current state of dating from the female perspective, it is sadly accurate. Men in “Damsels in Distress” do not get a positive representation. That is clearly a purposeful work of exaggeration meant to make a point. In this isolated sample of college life gone awry, young men who are dumb, unfaithful, and pathologically deceptive rule the day.

Walt Stillman’s screenplay is correct in saying that it is ultimately up to women to hold the standard. They have to refuse to lower their bar. That said, the exaggeration of male-dom is a drawback to the movie. While there to make a statement, it borders disastrously close to crossing the line into being full-blown offensive as it is getting there.

Opening with a bit of madcap nuance, Walt Stillman veers the film into a wacky overdrive that is delirious in nature. There are dance and singing sequences meant to conjure the spirit of Fred Astaire, and in doing so, it loses its real-world sensibility.

It is one thing to have a sing-a-long dance sequence (a la “(500) Days of Summer”) that flows in with some hyperreality and then fades away. It is a completely different animal to have to overshadow every facet of the movie. Due to this sidetracking, the first quarter of “Damsels in Distress” is completely disconnected from the rest. At close to an hour and forty minutes, it feels much longer.

There are numerous subplots. Lily’s romance with her friend turned more-than-friend Xavier (Hugo Becker). Heather’s (a charming Carrie Maclemore) courtship of the dumb-as-a-box-of-hair, Thor (Billy Magnussen), and Violet’s ensuing fixation on creating the next dance craze. By the time all this unfolds, the movie has worn out most of its goodwill. 

Greta Gerwig keeps the fires burning so that the ship that appeared so promising from a distance can maintain its allure. Though it doesn’t deliver, she rescues “Damsels in Distress” from total destruction. Rating: 5.5/10

“Damsels in Distress” was reviewed in conjunction with the War Horse vs. War Machine podcast episode. Here’s the full description via War Horse vs.War Machine, and click here to listen:

“On this episode, Greta Gerwig’s latest MISTRESS AMERICA has us talking about her influence in two prior starring roles in LOLA VERSUS and DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. In one, a breakup has her leaning on friends and in the other she seeks out people to help guide them to happiness. Britt from the pop culture blog Eclectic Pop guides us through The Greta Gerwig Effect. But first, we talk with Sam Levy, director of photography for MISTRESS AMERICA, about his work with writer/director Noah Baumbach.”

RELATED: Movie Review for “Lola Versus”