High school highbrow is a gem of a genre and a goldmine of underrated features have stolen our hearts. Look back to Rushmore, Election and Ghost World, all lovable and loquacious oddities that paved the way for movies like Damsels in Distress. The archetypal American school is prime fodder for a razor sharp comedy; the campus a place within popular culture that’s perfect for satire and Whit Stillman’s return to the director’s chair arrives at college dripping with his familiar sardonic wit. Stillman’s previous film, the Chloe Sevigny-starring Last Days of Disco, had a self-indulgent tone and this year’s Damsels in Distress takes it one step further.

Stillman clearly delights in creating intolerable characters and practically forces you to like them; it’s a strangely compelling style. Greta Gerwig’s high school queen bee, Violet – perhaps Stillman’s most unbearable creation so far – and her two excruciating best friends take it upon themselves to welcome newcomer Lily into their clique and set about saving their fellow students from suicide and smelliness. There is a lot to admire in the script (Stillman also wrote the screenplay) and Violet has some killer scenes, in particular her love for tap dance and her attraction to the frat house morons she believes are ‘handicapped’, but Damsels in Distress is a flawed feature that flirts with film school ideals.

Oddly, it all feels very much on purpose. Shot in under a month with little variety in location, its hyper real look and whimsical plot place it as a pet project. Despite a cheerful song and dance number to close out, as this perplexing movie leaves you rather cold you can’t help but wonder if that was the intention. A cult classic for few, simple curiosity for the rest.

6/10

By Ian Roebuck

Originally published in issue 38 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. May 2012