Director: Whit Stillman
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Ashleigh Tipton, Adam Brody
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Do you like Greta Gerwig? Do you like tap dancing? Then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Damsels in Distress. With all the sugary charm of a pretentious Mean Girls remake, Whit Stillman’s college comedy follows Violet (Gerwig) and her girly clique as they attempt to reduce the number of sad students on campus by running the Suicide Prevention Centre – a place where people are given free coffee and doughnuts. Providing they can prove they’re clinically depressed.
Lily (Tipton) has only been at Seven Oaks for a few minutes before she’s snapped up by the group. Taken on as their latest project, Lily is treated to an onslaught of absurd and arrogant philosophising. “The tendency to seek someone cooler than you is always a stretch. Why not find someone who’s frankly inferior?” suggests the pedantic Violent. After all, improving the lives of those socially, intellectually and aesthetically beneath them is the Christian thing to do. “Well, Judeo-Christian, to be exact,” she adds.
It’s a great turn from Greta Gerwig, who delivers the over-written dialogue with brilliant timing, smiling inanely as she counsels girls suffering from bad break-ups. But when Violet splits with her boyfriend and Lily finds herself paired with a guy who likes bum sex, things get a little less clear-cut.
You’d expect some moral lessons to be dished out around this point. They aren’t. Instead, the characters’ personalities change without warning or development – all the while repeating Stillman’s signature speech patterns. That’s the frustrating thing in Damsels in Distress: the simple lack of progression. Even with cute chapter headings, there’s no sense of where things are headed or whom we should feel sorry for. Things simply carry along in the same vein as the opening twenty minutes, and then just end.
But there are laughs to be had. A lot, in fact. Gerwig’s lead idiot is spot-on, while her friend Rose (a deadpan Megalyn Echikunwoke) fires out bitter one-liners and repeats the word “operator” until it becomes hilarious. The odd bit of physical comedy works too, while the male cast members milk some amusing comedy moments from their moronic status.
This is frothy, silly stuff that easily entertains, but don’t be fooled: it’s gaping with holes. But if you can tolerate the inconsistent characters and a soundtrack that only seems to alternate between two pieces of music, Damsels in Distress has an infectious sense of screwball fun that is as likeable as it is divisive. By the time the song-and-dance sequence arrives, you’ll either be praying the college blows up, or you’ll go to bed dreaming of Adam Brody. For all its elaborate vocabulary, Stillman’s comedy lacks the sophistication of Mean Girls, but one thing it does have? Greta Gerwig tap dancing. Violet maintains that it’s a good way to make sad people happy. Judging by Damsels, she may well be right.