Whit Stillman’s return to the screen arriving after a 13 year hiatus is a wordy, quirky, uneven film, more interested in making us smile than belly laugh. It follows the college life of 4 young girls; The florally named, Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Lilly (Analeigh Tipton). The luminous film glides along on a cushion of hoity toity language which helps the awkward proceedings as long as you fall right in line with it from the get go. It’s not always easy and the free flowing scripts of Stillman’s past efforts are, in comparison, much stronger and realistic than Damsels but, in sticking with it, the twee clichés of the film slowly uncovers a very charming (if a little gawky) comedy.
Violet and Rose are at the centre of a group of girls who pride themselves on saving the dumbest of all the male population at The Seven Oaks campus, deriding low standards, accepting criticism with wisdom beyond their years and most importantly striving for the removal of body odour of the even the slightest kind. Rose is the new student, taken under the wing of the trio of girls who set about educating her in the ways which they consider “proper”. Dating men with low I.Qs, avoiding “Rat playboy operators” and in order to educate them, turning every typical college trait on it’s end.
Stillman’s film certainly is unique in it’s ideas but sadly it’s want to be odd for odd’s sake remains its overriding factor. There’s something about the whole thing that seems a little desperate, much like the girls who work at the campus suicide prevention centre, attempting to rid the world of depression through dance. It is presented in a small vignettes reminiscent of Noah Baumbach’s brilliant debut Kicking and Screaming. In it’s best parts Damsels in Distress certainly hits it’s mark; The male cast are brilliantly put down, one character has never learned the colours while another marvels when he is told the colour of his eyes, “I don’t go round looking at what colour my eyes are”, he screams.
Gerwig is excellent as Violet, struck herself with a profound depression after her boyfriend cheats on her and, obsessed with the fragrance of one certain type of motel soap and with the invention of a new dance craze, she is a joy to watch. Damsels is without a doubt her film but it’s a slightly disappointing return for Stillman who decides to end it with a series of dance numbers which aim to warm but leave a bit of a childish after taste considering the unique wordplay which has gone before.