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Screens & Tech

Often exasperating 'Damsels in Distress' has its heart (and ear) in the right place

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Fourteen years after his last film, The Last Days of Disco, writer-director Whit Stillman reclaims his status as perennial contender to the Tarantino of the Upper Classes title. Sure, Damsels in Distress has no violence and very little sex (you have to pay close attention to realize these characters are sometimes talking about anal sex), but the whole movie is a self-indulgent show of rapid-fire dialogue, witty remarks, and pseudo intellectual mental masturbation that Tarantino gets dragged in regardless.

Only Woody Allen writes better dialogue for the upper crust.

The college girls and boys in Damsels in Distress are as fake as their fictitious school; the boys are either pretentious assholes or plain dumb, and the girls (who run the campus’ Suicide Prevention Center through a combination of doughnuts, hygiene, and dancing, and are as troubled as the people they preach at) turn out to be fake as well. The movie has no real plot; it is a 90-minute dialogue-driven character study, and your ability to care about these people depends on how much you appreciate good acting and directing. Lines like “When it comes to suicide, prevention is 10/10ths of the solution,” or “No one should be embarrassed for not knowing stuff; what’s embarrassing is pretending you know what you don’t know” could bomb in other people’s mouths; but these kids — all of them brilliantly cast — deliver each line with conviction. But don’t wait for anything real to happen: these guys are just talking, and it’s their world, not yours. Join them, or scram.

Stillman is like a great self-taught jazz drummer with amazing technique that doesn’t serve any purpose, but you'll be amazed how he expertly manages to keep your attention while a bunch of frat idiots talk their asses off about nothing. Stillman shows his true colors with three key scenes involving Thor (Billy Magnussen), the most interesting of the secondary characters. In the first two, Thor — who at first doesn’t even know what the colors are — is introduced as the one who is there to really learn and is not afraid to show himself as he really is. During a charming musical number at the end, he’s the one having more fun than anyone else. He’s the only one capable of feeling moved by a rainbow, a joy his brain-obsessed friends can’t share.

The movie’s backbone is indie darling Greta Gerwig (who may or may not be called Violet). Last seen in Arthur and No Strings Attached, Gerwig enjoys her best role yet as a dance-obsessed nutcase who wants to help others and dreams about leading a worldwide dance craze. Her thing is the “sambola.”

“If you can count to eight you can do the sambola,” the closing credits inform. The sambola is the movie. Either you dig it right away, or you don’t. But if you can stay there for an hour and a half, you realize the sambola is not as silly as it sounds. Just tell yourself, “If Thor could do it, so can I.”

Damsels in Distress

★★★★ ½ (out of 5 stars)

Writ. and dir. Whit Stillman; feat. Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Billy Magnussen. (PG-13)

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