By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin April 6, 2012 at 1:19AM
It’s difficult to know what to make of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. When I screened it for my class at USC my students’ reaction was all over the map. One young woman said it was possibly the worst movie she’d ever seen, while a young man raised his hand to say that he loved it; many others echoed their sentiments. I fall somewhere in between those two extremes.
Indie favorite Greta Gerwig plays an Ivy League college student whose clique adopts a newcomer to campus (Analeigh Tipton). These self-possessed young ladies feel it is incumbent upon them to raise the spirits, and standards, of the campus—whether the recipients of their largesse are grateful or not.
One could call their mode of language and overall manner affected or obnoxious, depending on your point of view. I was not buying into the film until people around me started laughing, and I found myself surrendering to it…somewhat. I think it’s the sheer absurdity of the movie that disarmed some of my students, although it is still best described as an oddity. (There is even an old-fashioned musical number near the end of the picture.)
Writer-director Stillman is a former preppie who has explored upper-class values in his previous films, but I don’t remember finding Metropolitan so arch and off-putting as Damsels in Distress.
I suspect that audiences and critics will echo my class’ widely varied response to the film, but this much is sure: it may earn a niche as the year’s most original and unusual comedy.