Damsels in Distress - SideReel Review
Thirteen years passed between writer/director Whit Stillman’s third film, The Last Days of Disco, and his fourth, the charmingly quirky Damsels in Distress. In some ways, it’s like he never missed a beat: Damsels revels in the sharp dialogue and funny character quirks that defined Stillman’s earlier movies. In other ways, though, time reveals how little he’s seemed to develop during his extended absence.
The movie centers on a group of female college friends led by Violet (Greta Gerwig), a talkative, determined young woman just as intent on keeping her campus’ suicide-prevention center opened and staffed as she is on starting a popular dance craze -- she believes dance can cure the depressed. Her clique soon takes in transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who is thankful to find new friends so quickly. In addition to their never-ending quest to improve the mental health of the student body, the ladies also end up involved in a variety of romantic misadventures with frat boys, heartthrobs, and older men.
There really isn’t much of a plot in Damsels in Distress, and the characters never quite cohere into three-dimensional people. Perhaps that’s because Stillman never figured out if Violet or Lily was the protagonist, and as a result, he never decided on what story he wanted to tell. Much of that can be forgiven, however, just because the whole thing flowers as a goofy comedy.
Gerwig and Tipton do have superb comic timing, and Stillman knows how to edit in order to maximize laughs. He firmly establishes Violet’s alpha-female persona, as well as her plans on how to manipulate and secure the perfect boyfriend, before pulling the rug out from under her and letting us know that she’s far from a reliable narrator. Lily, on the other hand, is a wide-eyed innocent, and she immediately becomes the audience surrogate because she meets these new friends for the first time just as we do. Her romantic storyline is in many ways the most interesting, but Stillman sacrifices evolving it into something more because he can’t resist going back to Violet’s wacky ways.
The writing establishes the movie’s unique comedic tone early on and stays with it consistently. Stillman’s arch, overly ornate, yet exceedingly precise dialogue is the aural equivalent of Wes Anderson’s playful but rigidly composed visuals. There’s also an element of early Woody Allen in Stillman’s ability to use overly articulate language to tell occasionally dirty and often ridiculously silly jokes. You might find you’re not laughing anymore, but you’ll appreciate how devoted the movie is to keeping you amused right down to the end credits (which might be the funniest of the year).
All those laughs are welcome, but what’s missing from Damsels is the sense of a bigger picture. Stillman’s earlier films all played like generational statements as well as warmhearted comedies; they attempted to address bigger issues. This movie is pure silliness from beginning to end -- even suicide is treated with a light whimsy that would be off-putting or even offensive in lesser hands. After nearly a decade and a half away, Stillman has come up with his funniest -- yet least compelling -- movie.