Damsels in Distress is, essentially, a composite, based on real films, like New York Magazine does. There is no one real Damsels in Distress. There are many of them. Some come from Whit Stillman’s debut, Metropolitan, others have trace elements of Barcelona and later sections of the film pay homage to The Last Days of Disco. Alright, besides abusing the idea of composite as a way of cheekily talking about Damsels in Distress it’s also an indicator of the fact that Damsels in Distress is a film without a distinct identity.
It’s a Stillman film through and through. The snarky exchanges, overindulgent vocabulary and cutting satire lace the dialogue driven escapades of a group of female college students. As roommates, ringleader Violet (Greta Gerwig), soft and sweet Heather (Carrie MacLemore), British and biting Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and newcomer Lily (Analeigh Tipton) explore the potential for activism and romance on college campus. The film is undoubtedly a result of Stillman’s interest in group dynamics.
However, the safe familiarity of Stillman’s style and themes also make this film unremarkable because everything Damsels in Distress does, Stillman has done much better in a previous film. Sure, the context has changed, which allows him to take on and make fun of different groups, but that doesn’t make any of his insights, story points or characters any different than those found in his previous films.
Most of the characters in Damsels in Distress are pale shadows of their forerunners. Violet is Ted from Barcelona. She has the same crazy theory about finding romance with someone beneath your potential and also expresses a fake religious epiphany (“This soap gives me hope”). Lily is Alice from The Last Days of Disco, she’s the one who will challenge the validity of group’s stance and also displays the more naïve attributes Alice represented in The Last Days of Disco.
And where the characters diverge from Stillman’s previous cast of characters, the film is much the lesser for it. The frat house boys are depicted as the most ignorant, empty-headed doofi (the film’s plural of doofus). Besides being satirical in the crassest way possible, it’s too over-the-top and exaggerated. It requires a suspension of disbelieve that these characters are actually smart enough to not trip over their own feet or cower in fear when they step outside because the sky might fall on their heads.
It’s hilarious, but feels mean spirited. These characters are endearing because of how stupid they are, but only because the audience is asked to have the same sort of moronic sympathy for them as Violet. They’re puppies, not people. The film is filled with a smattering of smart men, but they get lost in the waves of frat boy barbarism. In previous films, Stillman makes the characters he mocks sympathetic because of their humanity. Here, they’re only sympathetic because of how charmingly stupid they are.
Furthermore, the film lacks a consistent focus. What starts as coming alongside a group of people with a pretentious and superior outlook on life transforms into a larger critique of college life and then devolves into a little comedy about an attempt to launch an international dance craze. Each new letter feels like a new paragraph in the love letter Stillman is trying to write to himself.
As indulgent as the film gets, it’s still a reminder of why Stillman is even able to make such a film. It’s hilarious, charming, witty, cute, and has more thought and nuance put into the humor than make it stand tall above the sex and body humor jokes that perpetuate commercially viable comedy. It’s a shame all the smart elements of Damsels in Distress come from Stillman films that are a lot smarter and better constructed than this film.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing