2.5 Stars out of 4
On the surface, Damsels in Distress comes from the textbooks of Mean Girls and Clueless, but its skittish wit makes it part of a world where the stars don’t shine. Coming from Whit Stillman, who hasn’t directed a film since The Last Days of Disco in 1998, it is clear he hasn’t made a comeback simply to be derivative. He has put all his writing efforts into this one, pouring on dialogue to the point you want to raise your finger to his characters’ lips. But not quite – they’re pretty good talkers.
It centers on an ambitious trio of women, edgy Violet Wister (Greta Girwig), upright Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and winsome Heather (Carrie MacLemore), who, in case you did not notice, share names of flowers. But this group of “flower power” carries a rough edge, and they do their best to tame the patriarchy of their college, Seven Oaks. The Woody Allen-esque credits remind us they are the “damsels” and the men, slick Charlie (Adam Brody), hunk Xavier (Hugo Becker), rambunctious Frank (Ryan Metcalf), and clumsy Thor (Billy Magnussen), are the titular “distress.”
In a loopy world like the one in Damsels in Distress, it usually helps to have a fish-out-of-water character. This person is whom the audience identifies with because the film’s setting – in this case, the East Coast – is new to them. The audience can thus relate easily to someone and share similar discoveries. In Damsels in Distress, this character is Lily (Crazy Stupid Love’s Analeigh Tipton), whose more conventional cuteness is challenged by Girwig’s trunk-like torso and waddling gait.
This female coterie wants to clean up Seven Oaks, and rid it of the likes of frat parties and dopey jocks. Things amount to screwball when the men become romantic players in some of these girls’ lives, and tension – ostensibly – ensues. While Stillman’s dialogue carries a brittle originality, his character designs are deliberately clichés. This is the point because this allows the dialogue to transcend them. Amusingly, I noticed that everybody talked so differently they ultimately spoke the same.
For comedy, Stillman is no conventionalist. But in the words of Orson Welles: “an artist should always be out of step with his time.” As such, Stillman’s Damsels in Distress is a film we enjoy listening to for its oddities, but never finally participate in. Yes, you can tell Stillman wrote the script with moxie and passion. His film plays out like a college folk tale, with the sunlight beaming with unnatural beauty through the trees and his tone consistently fantastical. But as such, his themes of suicide and the macabre feel shoehorned in, meant for the more cynical snout of Todd Solondz.
Damsels in Distress, however, is proof Girwig has a charm for the screen. Her mannerisms don’t work in her more basic, cookie-cutter rom-com roles in Arthur and No Strings Attached. I would like to see her in the next Woody Allen movie. In Damsels, she is like the Simone de Beauvoir, laying down her feminist ideals without pause and, simultaneously, ruminating of existentialism.
If you like Stillman, Damsels in Distress may work for you. It somewhat did for me, but I would suggest next time Stillman think over more what he wants to do with these zany characters; subsequently, he should create more of a narrative backbone for his comedy to waltz through. This is not to say no one dances. We get an eye-full of a dance number, where the performers do the samba in some sort of Brechtian farewell. I’d ask questions, but this is Stillman whose comedy could bring knee-slappers or, otherwise, a bit of distress.