College can often be a trying and even traumatic time for some, but on hand to help the students of Seven Oaks, a stately-looking East Coast establishment, are a trio of prim and proper female students comprised of group leader Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore). Managing the campus’ Suicide Prevention Center, they dispense sagely advice alongside offering refreshments, donuts and the opportunity to engage in a number of dancing techniques, designed to help alleviate the stress of student life.
Into their lives comes Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student trying to find her feet. The girls instantly take a shine to their new classmate and decide to mould her in their own images, although she isn’t beyond criticising their peculiar methods and outlook.
After a 13 year absence from the big screen, Damsels in Distress is a welcome return for director Whit Stillman. Like his previous features (the first of which, Metropolitan, received an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay way back in 1990) he’s covering similar terrain here, with his preppy, erudite characters indulging in springy, one-upmanship wordplay.
The Damsels themselves are incredibly precocious, and their verbose, off-kilter “gee-whiz” attitude and 50’s-looking sweater and frock combos give off an almost Lynchian vibe. Juxtaposing that with a modern fraternity setting adds to the unusualness and eccentric atmosphere, and it’s also where much of the humour lies. The girl’s insistence in delivering a torrent of dated feminist advice and truisms are frequently hilarious, with Violet’s straight-faced, pedantic put-downs getting the most comedic millage.
In that role, Gerwig once again demonstrates why she currently wears the indie crown which once sat firmly on Chloë Sevigny’s head. But she has much more to offer than a variation on that clichéd Manic Pixie Dream Girl persona, and as the film progresses, her characters inner demons (the symptoms behind of her own flighty behaviour) surface and Gerwig manages to balance quirkiness with an inherent sadness.
In fact, all the actors tackle this material with aplomb, and the male cast made up of (with the exception of Adam Brody as Lily’s suave suitor) frat boy meatheads that Violet and Co. can’t help but fall for, in spite of themselves, are all terrific.
Make no mistake, with its surreal, spontaneous Astaire/Rogers dance numbers and (in a nod to the title) innocent, quasi-fairly-tale feel, this is very much the definition of marmite cinema. How much you embrace the film may depend upon your twee threshold, but fans of the director will lap this up, as will Stillman neophytes who will undoubtedly be interested in delving into his small, yet precious (and sadly hard to find) back catalogue after watching this.
There’s no doubt as to which film will be the all-out champ at the box office this weekend, but for those cinemagoers whose tastes lay outside the norm, Damsels in Distress offers an amusing and thoroughly disarming alternative.