Damsels in Distress ★★1/2
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A Training Bra for Barbie
One stop on the path to understanding Greta Gerwig’s enormous success as co-writer and director of the megahit “Barbie” is her mid-acting career role as Violet, a know-it-all college student in Whit Stillman’s 2011 “Damsels in Distress.” Violet leads a pack of wolves—make that female college students—who see themselves as the moral arbiters of the once women-only “Seven Oaks University,” a not-too-subtle reference to the Seven Sisters. (Gerwig, born in 1983, attended Barnard College, one of the once all-women “Sisters,” majoring in Philosophy.)
Greta Gerwig, right, is Violet,
who finds salvation from
depression in the scent
of a bar of soap.
One stop on the path to understanding Greta Gerwig’s enormous success as co-writer and director of the megahit “Barbie” is her role in Whit Stillman’s 2011 “Damsels in Distress.”
The trio of juniors runs a Suicide [Prevention] Center designed to minister to men, and some women, who can’t handle college life. The group intentionally draws its prey for its highly therapeutic interventions from dumb (one named Thor is trying to learn his colors), boorish, immature frat boys, guys who think they can easily dominate the co-eds. Despite the overbearing sense of superiority, the girls seek to “elevate the human experience” by inventing the latest dance craze, and they imagine they can save the pathetic inhabitants of one of the school’s frats with a whiff of scented soap.
Despite the overbearing sense of superiority, the girls seek to “elevate the human experience" by inventing the latest dance craze.
Violet’s co-conspirators in these ventures are Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), the cynic who views all men as manipulators, and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), the gullible, sexy, airhead. The introduction of a sophomore transfer, Lily (Lio Tipton), upsets the balance, because Lily is willing to confront Violet on her arrogance and inconsistencies. Stillman, known for big, sprawling, intellectually-stimulating films, among them “Metropolitan” (for which he was nominated for a 1990 Best Original Screenplay Oscar), here renders the four women nicely distinguishable—though none of the supporting actresses can compete with Violet’s role and Gerwig’s screen presence.
Gerwig’s Violet is austere and nearly expressionless—a face waiting for the person to emerge.
Above, the four co-eds in Violet's gang on the prowl for dumb men they can help;
left to right, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore),
Violet (Greta Gerwig), and Lily (Lio Tipton).
Violet’s inconsistencies (her name a mixture of two primary colors, which we think would be a good thesis topic for Thor [Billy Magnussen]) make for an interesting character. Like Barbie, Violet is doing her best to maintain a concept of herself and her relationship to men. Margot Robbie’s Barbie presents a façade of perkiness and dynamism; Gerwig’s Violet is austere and nearly expressionless—a face waiting for the person to emerge. In both films, the arc is the character’s growing awareness that the idea in her head may not be who she truly is.
One of the dumb men, Thor (Billy Magnussen) is excited about naming the colors of the rainbow. His equally not-too-bright girlfriend, Heather (Carrie MacLemore) thinks she needs to keep him from trying to commit suicide by jumping off a second story porch.
Violet’s revelation that she is in love with one of the dumb men (“lack of intelligence is not an immutable barrier to love”) undermines her tight grip on her imagined self. Animal attraction overcomes the flimsy constructs the women have as a group. In the end, there’s lots of coupling. Unlike Barbie’s Ken, Violet’s love interest (Adam Brody) is her ending.
There are some decent jokes (putting the “Prevention” back in “Suicide Center”), though nowhere near the number that keeps the audience laughing in “Barbie.” Today, more than a decade after the film was released, the trivialization of college suicide in the name of comedy is discomfiting. The callouts to film history (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers) are fun, as is seeing actors earlier in their careers (Aubrey Plaza, along with Gerwig). There’s even some kinky, off-screen, sex. Looking for signs of “Barbie” is a good game too.
In the canon of teen films (from 1986’s “Pretty in Pink” to 2018’s “Eighth Grade”), Stillman’s effort would not rate very highly, though its macro-theme, a take-down of the therapeutic resolution to life’s problems, is music to our ears. For a look at the early development of one of our best writers and directors today, it is worth a try.
Date: 2011 (sometimes listed as 2012)
Director: Whit Stillman
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Lio Tipton, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Brody, Billy Magnussen
Runtime: 99 minutes
Country: United States
Other Awards: 1 win, 2 other nominations (all for Gerwig as Best Actress)