“I’d like to thank you for that chastisement”
Leave it to Whit Stillman to ensure decadence never dies. The king of creating a haughty air onscreen during the 90s returns after a prolonged absence with Damsels in Distress, a film existing in the present but populated with a wealth of characters keeping one colloquial foot in the past. Interjecting an outsider unfamiliar with the pretention cultivated by those she is joining—much like Tom into the auteur’s debut feature Metropolitan‘s debutante gala season—we are allowed to see behind the curtain of a carefully calculated way of living on the campus of Seven Oaks. A transfer student simply looking for a change of scenery, young Lily (Analeigh Tipton) could never have been prepared for the time warp of arrogant idealism and upper class stupidity that awaited her in this highly stylized canvas of cliché and stereotype.
Singled out by the loquaciously hypocritical Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her snooty cronies Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), the new girl on campus is quickly exposed to the transparent façade appearing strangely opaque in this odd microcosm of existence. Self-proclaimed to be the hip experts on undergraduate lifestyle—spanning clothing, dating, depression, and more—this pack of egomaniacal meddlers walks as though rulers of a kingdom too weak and in need of their assistance to revolt against the image projected upon them. Fraternities house oafish dullards who never had reason to learn the names of colors, all females with tears welled in their eyes are deemed suicide risks, and love becomes a game of power where courting those beneath you serves to both retain control and fulfill a need for charity work one’s conscience may require.
My girlfriend made an interesting contextual point as we walked out of the theatre in regards to how prevalent misogyny, bigotry, and elitism has become in our culture. She made a case concerning our ease in laughing and treating offensive behaviors onscreen as satire because we’ve become jaded to the point of desensitization. To forgive and even applaud the ‘doofi’—yes, a plural of doofus—of Roman frat boys here for their imbecilic behavior and inability to portray growth or a shred of sensitivity only shows society’s relative ease in enduring the act of marginalization. While they are defended and treated as poor souls struggling through the handicaps of inattentive parents more worried about what the neighbors thought than their child’s wellbeing, Jimbo (Jermaine Crawford)—one of the few black characters and also the most compassionate of any involved—is dismissed with a retort of ‘he doesn’t count’.
Were Jimbo to embrace a new dance craze Violet hopes to save humanity with called the Sambola, its exposure wouldn’t increase nearly as much as if the ignorant, chauvinistic cretins of white America hailed it trendy and cool. New generations are taught how to act by a structure formed by the unsavory and bigoted rather than the progressive and open-minded. Girls like Violet, Rose, and Heather speak as though gospel, molding the minds of all who cross their paths with vile rhetoric dripping from the hatred of centuries past that sadly were never deemed archaic by the parents who brought them into this world. We laugh and giggle because we watch decency manhandled on a daily basis. We laugh because its true and the actors involved perform because they mask the hard fact that a film like Damsels in Distress condones such action while innocently pretending to chastise it.
It’s a fine line Stillman must walk—doing his best to shed light on our inadequacies by juxtaposing a way of being we believe was left behind. We’re still a selfish species forever intent on achieving higher states of consciousness and enlightened moral ground and will always push those who differ to the margins until they accept our warped interpretations. Nothing has changed and the film does a wonderful job proving such once our ‘control group’ Lily reveals herself to be as bad or worse than those she struggles to reconcile her tenuous friendships with. A girl so self-absorbed in wanting to fit in, she will engage in abnormal sexual activities with smooth talking ‘playboys’ and ‘operator-types’ as well as defend those she herself takes umbrage with. Say what you will about Violet’s superiority complex, at least she knows who she is and truly thinks she’s helping those in need.
I realize now that saying she knows who she is will seem a bit of a joke to those who’ve seen the film. Gerwig’s sterile, untrusting, judge and jury is all a brilliant surface manifestation somehow keeping a small morsel of youthful empathy beneath. A performance that steals the show with breathless, unemotional line readings more attuned to an oral class assignment precisely timed to the second than natural conversation, it won’t take long before you realize her words mirror the secret judgmental dialogues we stifle within our own minds. She contains the capacity to evolve, take criticism, and accept self-respect not to be a sign of weakness. Fitting right in with MacLemore’s airhead and Echikunwoke’s fabricated airs at the start, life’s tragedies find the tiniest crack in her impenetrable shield to allow a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the young girl she trapped deep within herself years ago may one day see the light again.
Still unsure whether I fully bought the satire or rejected the premise as a tool for hate mongering without filter, I couldn’t help finding myself laughing at a consistent clip. The ‘joke’ wears itself thin halfway through and Stillman assaults us with an increasing number of chapter cards dragging the pacing to a stand still, but the characters created never cease to amaze in their precise cadences and witty dialogue. Adam Brody arrives as a conniving player with a heart of gold; Zach Woods brings pretentiousness to a new height of hypocrisy; Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen pull our education system’s merits to a new low; and Hugo Becker shows how an intelligent, cultured soul only makes being a pig easier. Their distress counters the girls’ damsels splendidly considering each of our heroines would probably disrobe at the slightest interest from any of the opposite sex.
The women’s liberation movement probably takes a huge step backwards with this one as a result, but it does make you laugh in the process. Hopefully the subject matter causes audiences to think about the way they act towards those they deem inferior and not accidentally validate their cruelty as a way of appropriate living. Stillman has either crafted a masterpiece to awaken our humanity or one more example of how equality still hasn’t become—nor probably ever will—a reality.
 Left to Right: Carrie MacLemore as Heather, Greta Gerwig as Violet and Megalyn Echikunwoke as Rose. Photo by Sabrina Lantos, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
 Left to Right: Greta Gerwig as Violet and Adam Brody as Fred/Charlie. Photo by Sabrina Lantos, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
 Left to Right: Carrie MacLemore as Heather and Analeigh Tipton as Lily. Photo by Sabrina Lantos, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics