sun 15/12/2019

Damsels in Distress | reviews, news & interviews

Damsels in Distress

Damsels in Distress

Whimsical, wordy rom-com charms despite its lack of recognisable human characters

Violet (Greta Gerwig) leads the charge to lift fellow students out of depression

The opening scene of Whit Stillman’s (The Last Days Of Disco) first film in 13 years comprises one of the most immediately familiar scenarios in the American high school genre. A wide-eyed new girl arrives on campus, is spied by a trio of queen bees and co-opted into their ranks, from where she embarks upon a journey of social self-discovery and inevitable hubristic downfall. But this is college, not high school, and the queen bees are something altogether subtler and stranger.

Rather than Mean Girls, these damsels are philanthropists, on a mission to save their fellow students from depression, mediocrity and low standards. Their ringerleader Violet (Greta Gerwig) leads the charge with scented soap and dance classes, dispensed at their self-run campus Suicide Prevention Centre. Their trio becomes a quartet when fish-out-of-water Lily (Analeigh Tipton, pictured below) joins, and the healthy dose of skepticism with which she regards their earnest endeavour should, in theory, work as a counterweight to the culture shock of Stillman’s unashamedly idiosyncratic tenor.

Lily (Analeigh Tipton)The problem is that Tipton is, by and large, a blank slate – her peculiarly gawky beauty aside, she’s a desperately lacking lead presence, at once bland and aloof. The new girl, who should be our eyes and ears as we navigate these alien waters, is as inscrutable as her surroundings. The result is that Stillman’s waggish world disorients just as often as it charms, with no anchoring, relatable character at its core.

Gerwig, however, is a relentless joy to watch. She stole scenes from Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s recent Greenberg, and has appeared both in mumblecore fare (Hannah Takes The Stairs, Baghead) and mainstream crud (No Strings Attached), but isn’t yet the household name she should by all rights become. Given her role in Woody Allen’s upcoming To Rome With Love, this may not remain the case for long. She somehow combines in Violet a sense of playful naïveté with a streak of nihilistic self-awareness, creating the film’s only remotely three-dimensional character, a girl who is at once terribly old and terribly young.

Despite what the title might imply, these damsels aren’t about to be rescued by the men around them, who by and large fall into either the categories of boorish frat boy or pseudo-intellectual pervert. Violet’s philanthropic approach to higher education extends to dating preternaturally dim frat boys in an attempt to guide them towards becoming less inferior, a setup that could easily have been obnoxious but dovetails instead into one of the film’s most sweet and surprising plot threads.

Damsels in Distress, like its heroines, takes a quiet and earnest sort of pride in its own utterly out-of-place tenor. To call it anachronistic would be inaccurate only because its period seems intentionally indefinite – it could be set in any decade from the past four and still feel out of time. There will be many who flat out despise it for its self-indulgence, its aimless, meandering narrative, its paper-thin characters. Yet for all its foibles, Stillman knows exactly what film he is making, and there’s something undeniably charming about the pluck with which he executes it. A rare, perplexing, rather joyous oddity. 

Watch the trailer for Damsels in Distress


Stillman’s waggish world disorients just as often as it charms

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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