REVIEW: Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress Drowns in Coyness

Movieline Score: 6

Damsels in Distress is Whit Stillman’s first film in 14 years: For those keeping track at home, that’s the equivalent of three four-year stints at an Ivy League college, plus one year of graduate school, plus one year of aimless backpacking around Europe bankrolled by daddy. How much you enjoy Damsels will depend on your tolerance for Stillman’s particular brand of duct-taped Sperry Topsider whimsy. It’s a comedy! It’s a musical! It’s a trip down memory lane to revisit the blissful confusion of our — or someone’s — college years! Damsels in Distress is all of those things and yet somehow less, as wayward as a second-semester junior who can’t yet decide on a major.

The characters and the movie itself seem lost in time, which is surely part of the point. Greta Gerwig plays Violet, the leader of a snobby three-girl clique at an eminently respectable East Coast college — it goes by the name Seven Oaks, and the campus is a cozy nest of Greek Revival buildings enhanced by a great deal of exquisite, sun-dappled leafiness, the kind of place that inspires nostalgia long before graduation. (The picture was filmed in Snug Harbor, on Staten Island, a clever use of location shooting.) On the first day of the new semester, Violet and her cohorts — the judgmental, upper-crusty Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and the flaky-cute Heather (Carrie MacLemore) — spot a new girl and immediately decide to take her under their wing: Lily (Analeigh Tipton) has just transferred from another school, and though she doesn’t seem particularly lost, she does have a wide-eyed Olive Oyl innocence that inspires protectiveness. And if you’re Violet, you’ll add a soupçon of passive-aggressive condescension. “Lily failed, or was unhappy, at her last school, but we feel she’s going to adapt beautifully,” she says as she introduces Lily around to her coterie of acceptable acquaintances.

The rest of Damsels in Distress follows the young women as they go about their college-life routine, which includes manning the campus “suicide center” (Violet is a firm believe that tap-dancing can cure all ills, including suicidal impulses), bat around lofty pseudophilosophical thoughts (“We’re all flawed; must that render us mute to the flaws of others?”), attend dances at the local fraternities (which go by Roman letters, not Greek ones, just to be different, I guess), and, most significantly, become depressed or at least just seriously confused by the guys in their orbit. Those include a grad student named Xavier (Hugo Becker), who sells the sexually innocent Lily one hell of a line of goods; Charlie (Adam Brody), a suave man-about-town who also hopes to put the moves on Lily; Thor (Billy Magnussen), a college student who has yet to learn his colors; and Frank (played, with a great deal of dopey charm, by newcomer Ryan Metcalf), Violet’s boyfriend, who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but who is nonetheless possessed of the most startling blue eyes, an attribute he downplays disarmingly. (He deflects a compliment by asserting, with frat-boy earnestness, “I’m not going to go around checking out what color my eyes are!”)

Stillman — who also wrote the script — allows the story to flit from here to there, lighting on one comic idea after another like a confused bee, never sticking around long enough to actually pollinate anything. Discrete events and vignettes pile up messily: When Violet becomes deeply depressed over some romantic problems with Frank, the scent of a particular soap brings her back to her senses. The male students are punished by the administration after a Dionysian campus hootenanny gets too rowdy. The editor of the campus newspaper acts like an asshole. Violet practices her tap dancing. And so on.

The movie’s pleasures supposedly lie in its casual, disorganized nature, but the effect is a kind of studied dottiness, as if Stillman (whose last film was the 1998 The Last Days of Disco) were genuinely trying to say something but has simply forgotten what it is. Damsels does look quite pretty — that Snug Harbor location, coupled with DP Doug Emmett’s restrained camera work, sure doesn’t hurt. And Stillman does seem to appreciate Gerwig’s preternaturally honest, questioning face. But he doesn’t know what to do with her gangly-graceful physical and comic timing: She’s like a cartoon ostrich ballerina, yet Stillman doesn’t give her big moments any shape or structure, leaving her to flail hither and thither.

Tipton (who played the lovestruck baby-sitter in last year’s Crazy Stupid Love) is the most appealing of the bunch — her Lily is the right combination of sensible and open-hearted, and she has a radiant tipsy moon of a smile. But the movie’s lackadisical, shuffling feel doesn’t serve her particularly well. By the time Damsels in Distress winds its way toward its closing musical number — a singing, dancing outdoor ensemble rendering of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Things Are Looking Up” — its romantic charms, meager to begin with, have worn thin, like a tweed jacket gone threadbare at the elbows. The thing has the feel of a vanity project, lacking urgency — like the work of a gentleman filmmaker who doesn’t have to work.

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  • clip says:

    well, I hated Metropolitan when I first saw it, sort of liked Last Days of Disco when I first saw it...but now when I watch them, I appreciate them as rich, involving (occasionally irritating) masterpieces. We're missing filmmakers who wont' pander to impatient, add-addled audiences...right?

  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    Re: Damsels in Distress is all of those things and yet somehow less, as wayward as a second-semester junior who can’t yet decide on a major.

    What a lovely world it would be if everyone who went to university found their niche early, and stuck to it -- so long, that is, nothing about the world they're being rushed into warranted more than the designated pause to legitimate and sustain. Such mortals would function beautifully in a salon.

    Re: like the work of a gentleman filmmaker who doesn’t have to work.

    I'm guessing the entire right-wing culture views the left this way -- as lazy, entitled half-wits that don't know the meaning of work. In any case, some of us look for good things primarily from those figuring out how to enfranchise their sense of play and their ability to disassociate themselves from everything in society that tells them not to pause too long but keep moving, keep moving, keep moving.

  • Lavon Johnson says:

    The problem with unconventionality is that it may be taken from either extreme. Yes its structure may be considered unorganized or flitting. But I on the contrary think that these are just signs of its originality. Zacharek may think that it does not land on any one point but that is just proof that there are so many different ideas to absorb. It does not fail to develop the ideas. Its just that true to life they are developed by different often opposing takes on life through the characters own fluctuating thoughts.

    Novelty does not necessarily mean progress. But this non-linear movie is definitely some form of unusual beauty. The problem is that today modern artistic movies while espousing innovation follow the same "type". We, the film intellectual world, are becoming hipsters unable to accept true innovation when it comes. In the new york times. post academy's, an article fretted that perhaps the film world had hit a rut. Well perhaps we haven't after all.

    But more important than novelty --for novelty does not intrinsically equate good-- is damsels' quality. Its "messiness" a richness of thoughts on human dynamics which may be taken lightly due to its elegant/witty/hyper polished phrasing and the modesty/humor of Whit's tone.

    My recommendation is to view this movie if possible with no set expectations. Just try to relax, go with the flow and enjoy this wacky half ironic escapade.

    P.S.: I had the bravery to oppose this critique as I believe anyone that thinks Lilly at the end is the heroine did not get the movie. And I don't mean to be disrespectful. I just watched it again to show it to a friend and realized that I myself had missed a LOT, enjoying it even more.

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