I’ve often complained about films that use gimmicks as a means of trying to make up for weaknesses in other areas, and it rarely works. Introducing elements like 3D and found footage rarely do anything to make a film better, and usually make it a lot worse. But I’ve got to say that I’m completely dumbfounded by the Whit Stillman gimmick, which is apparently to remove any semblance of a plot and fill it to overflowing with kitschy and unrealistic dialogue. I know that some people love this about his films, but I knew within a couple of minutes that I was going to hate Damsels in Distress.
Although it’s not really about anything, the film focuses on students at the Ivy League-ish Seven Oaks University. It’s the beginning of the school year, and Violet, Rose, and Heather (played by Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Carrie MacLemore, respectively) are returning students who have decided to bestow the gift of their accumulated wisdom upon a new arrival. They choose Lily (Analeigh Tipton), only to find that she’s not a freshman but has just transferred from another school. Nevertheless, their offer stands, and they quickly form a bond. And because the school has a housing shortage, they also become roommates.
The girls make a conscious effort to be helpful around campus. The university has a number of fraternities (which are identified with Roman letters rather than Greek, presumably because it’s more pretentious), and the girls see frat parties as a kind of youth outreach program in which they can help save the idiots from themselves. They also staff a campus suicide clinic, where their preferred therapy is dance, and Violet’s dream in life is to create a dance craze that can serve as a kind of global therapy.
It’s really difficult to concisely summarize what happens in Damsels in Distress because there really isn’t any kind of a plot. There is no challenge to be overcome or goal they’re trying to achieve (Violet’s dance craze idea kind of counts, I guess, but that idea isn’t even introduced until fairly late in the movie). It’s really just a collection of scenes that happen around a college campus and involve some of the most shallow and vapid people you’ll ever meet.
A big source of the appeal or frustration of the film lies in its quirky, unnatural dialogue. It seems the movie’s entire point is to be smug and pseudo-sophisticated with a holier-than-thou attitude, but without any real substance behind the quirky dialogue. It’s much like Juno or Clueless, except they managed to have some actual humor and a real story. The closest Damsels in Distress comes to comedy lies in a plot point in which a frat boy skipped kindergarten and never learned his colors. I didn’t find anything in the movie very funny, and there wasn’t much of to hold my interest at all.
This was the first Whit Stillman movie that I’ve seen, and I’ve heard the others generally have the same “weird dialogue and no plot” style. If you’ve seen and enjoyed other Whit Stillman films, then perhaps you’ll enjoy Damsels in Distress. I don’t feel a need to see any of his other films to learn whether I like them any better.