Entertainment Movies

Entertainment Entertainment Movies

'Damsels in Distress' review: The best movie of the year so far

**** (out of four)

“Come on, it’s not that bad!”

That banner, hanging inside a college suicide prevention center, offers a perfect glimpse at the dry, absurd wisdom of “Damsels in Distress,” writer-director Whit Stillman’s first movie since 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco.” His latest is also my favorite from this filmmaker (“Metropolitan,” “Barcelona”) who repeatedly explores social dynamics and linguistic oddities without a sense that he’s failing to expand on previous territory. (Cough, Terrence Malick, cough.)

Sort of a cross between an ironic intellectual exercise and “Clueless Goes to College,” “Damsels” revolves around Violet (Greta Gerwig), the leader of a pack of college girls who advocates the rescue and support of girls in need and unattractive, unintelligent guys who fail to realize their full potential. Think “Beauty and the Geek,” if the women wanted to be there more than the guys.

Violet and her crew of fellow juniors (Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke) adopt sophomore transfer Lily (Analeigh Tipton of “Crazy Stupid Love”), whom Violet notes, in her passive-aggressive commentary, either “failed or was unhappy” at her other school. Lily doesn’t really buy Violet’s belief that women should find an inferior partner, or her mantra that tap dancing represents the ultimate in therapy for depressed students.

Yet Lily finds some comfort in a group that observes and diagnoses the college men, both “rat playboy operators” with an agenda and beer-chugging frat boys the girls deem too dumb to be elitist. Stillman’s rapid-fire, dignified-yet-foolish dialogue swirls to create a warped rhythm and logic that twists into a strange, inside-out wisdom. Smart people can say dumb things and vice-versa, Stillman seems to say, with a giddy, absurd cleverness supporting a depiction of all people as deeply flawed and lacking a wide variety of information.

There’s a sad, weirdly funny truth to the girls’ chats about the power of a dance craze, which salute that rare beast: A unifying, happy experience for all to share.

Stillman’s rounded up excellent actresses (MacLemore in particular stands out as sweet, dopey Heather) to create multi-dimensional characters who can turn something seemingly moronic into food for thought. For example, Violet argues that being largely true, clichés represent “a stunning treasure trove of insight and knowledge.”

Social examination almost never feels this lively, funny and insightful. Worth seeing twice (at least), “Damsels” represents nothing less than a great movie about a goofy world—an articulate swoon of smarts posing as stupidity.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais


Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • Bold predictions for Lolla 2015

    Bold predictions for Lolla 2015

    The Lolla schedule is sort of like the NCAA tournament: there are millions of possible combinations, and it’s anyone’s guess what the winning picks will be. With that in mind, we make some bold predictions about how this year’s fest (returning to Grant Park Fri.-Sun.) will turn out. Breakout artist...

  • 2010 killing of Chicago cop detailed at trial; man claims self-defense

    2010 killing of Chicago cop detailed at trial; man claims self-defense

    The man on trial in the killing of Chicago police Officer Thor Soderberg hated police and surprised the officer as he changed out of his uniform at shift end and placed his duty belt down, a Cook County prosecutor alleged Monday.

  • Aldermen to hold hearing on untested rape kits

    Aldermen to hold hearing on untested rape kits

    Chicago aldermen on Monday called on police officials to provide information on how quickly rape kits are being tested by the state crime lab, part of a largely symbolic effort to determine whether a large backlog is hampering work to apprehend rapists.

  • Alderman's 'Chi-raq' criticism falls flat

    Alderman's 'Chi-raq' criticism falls flat

    A South Side alderman's effort to tweak filmmaker Spike Lee for using "Chi-raq" as the title for a movie about Chicago violence fell flat Monday with his colleagues.

  • ComEd to hold energy fairs to help low-income customers

    ComEd to hold energy fairs to help low-income customers

    Commonwealth Edison will hold energy fairs at satellite locations across the region Monday in order to get money to thousands of people struggling to pay their electricity bills in northern Illinois.

  • PAWS Chicago "Muttshots!"

    PAWS Chicago "Muttshots!"

    These adorable pups are on the loose looking for a place to call home. They have a warrant out for their arrest. Their crime? Being irresistibly cute and cuddly. If you're interested in adopting any of these dogs, please visit www.pawschicago.org for more information.