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Damsels in Distress

Friday, April 13th, 2012

Violet, the robotlike alpha female in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, wears sweater sets and A-line skirts to her classes at a snooty college. She speaks formally all the time, quickly spitting out well-turned-over opinions such as, “The intelligence line is not an immutable barrier.” She prefers boyfriends who are kinda dumb and not all that good-looking, and wishes to better the world by inventing a new dance craze. In the meantime, she takes new students under her wing and goes to frat parties in the interest of “youth outreach,” believing that the guys are “crying out for help and guidance.”

In short, Violet is unlike you or anybody you know, and it’s a problem.

Stillman’s return to the screen after 14 years qualifies as a disappointment because its characters are unrecognizable and, despite mounds and mounds of dialogue, it ultimately doesn’t have a sticking thought in its pretty head. What Damsels in Distress is even about is a mystery, as it flits from Violet (Greta Gerwig, excellent if elusive) and her two equally stiff roommates (Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) taking in a new student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), to Violet’s heart — who knew she even had one? — getting broken, to Lily’s dalliances, to, fleetingly, an attempt to pull a suicidal student out of her darkness. (Violet does try to help others with doughnuts and tap-dancing classes, but those depressives are even further in the background.)

The film is, admittedly, a farce. You’re not supposed to entirely believe that, for instance, one of the oh-so-dim frat boys has to study his colors because his parents made him skip kindergarten, and everything ends with a song-and-dance number. And, true to form, it is often funny, with Stillman veering from dry (regarding party attendees: “There’s enough material here for a lifetime of social work”) to silly (when Violet skips town for a while, she stays at a Motel 4, cheaper than a Motel 6).

But too much of Damsels is inscrutable. (Violet, for example, is a fervent fan of cliches, “a treasure trove of human insight and knowledge.” She tells Lily, “During these formative college years, we should try to learn as many cliched and hackneyed expressions as possible. Furthermore, I think we will!” Er, OK.) It bops along too randomly to really compel. (A subplot involving Charlie/Fred — don’t ask — played by The O.C’s Adam Brody, trips over itself before going nowhere.) Worse, Stillman seems to want to deify his main characters, twice backlighting them with the sun as they speak of helping others.

But they don’t really help others; in fact, most normal human beings would find the girls’ insistence on inserting themselves into people’s lives downright irritating — even the film’s absurdist angle doesn’t quite warrant grading on a curve. Perhaps the characters’ oh-so-mannered bullying would be forgivable if you could relate to them in any way. But if you do, perhaps you could use an intervention yourself.


Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Nope, no metaphor here.

An ingenue, a diva, a chucklehead, and a seemingly regular guy who turns out to be a chucklehead go into the woods to write a movie for their struggling-actor selves. It sounds like the setup for a bad joke, but really it’s premise of Baghead, the second feature from mumblecore auteurs Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair).

The difference? About 83 minutes. Baghead isn’t a terrible movie, exactly, and actually starts out promisingly: The four main characters are watching a godawful film at an indie festival, alternately grimacing, laughing, and having the inevitable we-could-do-better-than-that thoughts. Turns out the director is an acquaintance of Matt’s (Ross Partridge), so he does some ass-kissing to try and score access to the screening’s afterparty. (”Did you just say his film was awesome?” chucklehead Chad (Steve Zissis) later asks with a nauseated look.)

They don’t get into the party, so instead decide to hole up at a family member’s cabin for the weekend to create their own script. Because the foursome comprise two sorta-couples – Matt and the arrogant Catherine (Elise Muller) have been on and off for 11 years, while Chad is trying to move beyond the friend zone with dippy Michelle (Greta Gerwig) – they’d like to write a romance. But when Michelle dreams about a guy stalking them with a bag on his head, a thriller takes shape – and then goes meta, when they realize the vision might not have just been a dream after all.

Compared to films such as Tropic Thunder and The Blair Witch Project, Baghead’s poke at the film industry and attempt at verite horror are a little like making vroom-vroom noises next to a Porsche. The Duplass’s main offense is their characters, who despite being well into their 30s (with the possible exception of Michelle) act like brats, playing nasty tricks on each other and doing a lot of pouting when things don’t go their way. (Puffy Chair’s peeps weren’t always likable, but they were realistic – and in a superior movie.)

Also throw-your-Skittles irritating is the directors’ camerawork, which is wobbly with frequent focus adjustments and sudden zooms. There are a couple of decent scares here, and the sexual tension between the four sometimes feels believable, if unequivocally 10th-grade-ish. With digital cameras getting cheaper and film festivals reproducing like mosquitoes, Baghead isn’t likely to mark the end of the lo-fi movement. But it’s a good argument against hailing amateur as the new pro.