Whit Stillman returns to the big screen after a thirteen-year hiatus with the delightfully whimsical and wacky college comedy Damsels in Distress , which follows a group of misfit female students seeking to better the lives of others .
Writer/director Stillman has been absent from the big screen since his 1998 film, The Last Days of Disco . His return is much welcomed with Damsels in Distress. Utilizing his signature witty and refined dialogue style, the film follows a group of strangely offbeat “damsels” who seek out to improve the lives of their fellow students through proper hygiene instruction, tap dancing and donut hand-outs. This group of well-dressed and well-mannered women are often distressed by the university men-folk who lack the charm, intelligence and cleanliness they so desire.
The film has a Clueless -esque set-up that sees the strong-willed Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her cronies taking transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under their tutelage, which includes running the Dunkin’ Donuts-sponsored campus suicide prevention centre – free coffee and donuts for the depressed only. Though the female characters strive for intelligence, they are still one-dimensionally vapid, almost exclusively focusing on boys and fashion. However, their superficial focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a film that has a fair amount of laugh-out-loud humour embedded in the dense dialogue.
An almost absurdist film that isn’t quite grounded in reality, Damsels in Distress is a light-hearted, feel-good type of movie without the deeper resonance found in Stillman’s previous work. Perfectly cast, Gerwig gives a Chloe Sevigny-like performance as the assured Violet, the queen bee of the group who is determined to start a dance craze called the “˜Sambola.’ And it’s about time the actress has been given a chance to shine in a film with a decent script after small roles in the horrendous films No Strings Attached , Arthur and the muddled Greenberg. She dissects each line of dialogue carefully and slowly in contrast to Analeigh Tipton’s Lily, with whom the audience is meant to identify with in the recognition that this group of damsels is more than a little off.
The men in the film aren’t given much of a chance to do anything other than put their foot in their mouths and act like buffoons. Their presence is used only to create mild conflict and provide comic relief, which almost seems like it has been inter-cut from a frat boy movie. At one point, they actually show up clad in togas. The object of affection, Charlie, played by Adam Brody, is merely used to inch the plot forward and provide for more welcomed zaniness that includes a musical number.
Overall, Damsels in Distress is a fun and enjoyable, if wholly forgettable film.
Damsels in Distress screened as part of the Special Presentations programme at TIFF.