Damsels in Distress (2012)
A Damsel in Distress (USA) Directed by Whit Stillman Written by Whit Stillman Starring Analeigh Tipton; Greta Gerwig; Carrie MacLemore; Megalyn Echikunwoke; Ryan Metcalf; Caitlin Fitzgerald; Zach Woods; Aubrey Plaza; Hugo Becker; Adam Brody; Jermaine Crawford; Billy Magnissen; Alie Shawkwat; Taylor Nichols
Sixty year old writer/director Whit Stillman’s fourth feature (and first in thirteen years) is another stylized look at the young and privileged. Set in a Northeastern Ivy League-like college, Damsels focuses on a foursome of female students who subscribe to a self-conceived, developed, and regulated set of beliefs involving their dating inferior men and assisting fellow students through depression and suicidal thoughts.
On registration day, sophomore transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is approached by the girls. Led by the whimsical, and possibly unstable Violet (Greta Gerwig), they proceed to school her with a series of strange life lessons mostly concentrated on the minutiae of manners relating to dating the opposite sex. Though the four actresses - the group includes Magalyn Echikunwoke as Rose and Carrie MacLemore as Heather - all do their darnedest to handle the Stillman-speak, and the efforts of the talented Tipton and Gerwig improbably threaten to to make it all work, part of the issue is the girl’s overriding philosophy is so disjointed and sleight that it’s difficult to care one way or another.
With Metropolitan; Barcelona; and Last Days of Disco, the dialogue was no less quip-filled and meandering, but somehow Stillman was able to draw the audience in with sharply honed, wickedly intelligent, and often very funny words spoken by characters wonderfully embodied by the likes of Chris Eigeman; Taylor Nichols; Mira Sorvino; Chloe Sevigny; and Kate Beckinsdale. Despite the archness in each of his previous three films, the worlds depicted felt fully realized, and while Damsels in Distress stays almost entirely within the confines of the campus, both the characters and the surroundings never feel like more than overly self-conscious movie constructs.
Filmmakers creating highly stylized work always walk a fine line, constantly in danger of going too far and wandering into cartoon territory. From the very start, Damsels feels dated, as if Stillman wanted to create an 80s period piece but didn’t have the budget for it. And while in each of his previous films there were laugh out loud moments, and a wealth of amusing and unique ideas being spoken in a monotone, stilted manner by an array of characters, here the words often seem stale and many of the jokes fall flat. Furthermore, most of the supporting characters struggle with the rhythms of Stillman’s speech, creating too many uneven moments throughout. Though everything about Stillman’s films is supposed to occur in a bubble of altered quirky reality, here the tone is inconsistent and often simply doesn’t work.
Worst of all, none of the events seem even remotely realistic, and the precious, fey eccentricity that is so appealing and often delightfully surprising in Stillman’s previous work is replaced by a number of predictable, hackneyed scenes that feel like they needed to be exorcised. In fact, all of the male characters depicted are uniformly uninteresting, with frat boys Frank (Ryan Metcalf) and Thor (Billy Magnussen) so inanely written (they are supposed to be funny stupid) that one wonders how on earth a filmmaker of Stillman’s skill could possibly allow this level of embarrassing material into his final product.
There is something sad about a talent like Stillman’s long period of struggling to get films made, but perhaps equally as depressing is the fact that so many enthusiasts waited well over a decade for his next work, only to find a result that is almost wholly inconsequential.