Within mere seconds, it’s obvious that writer-director-producer Whit Stillman’s first film in over a decade is going to have a spirit all of its own – after all, Damsels in Distress opens with a bright pink Sony Pictures Classic logo, a change-up from their classic blue. The message is clear – it’s the damsels’ world, we’re just living in it. Set at Seven Oaks College, a small liberal arts school somewhere on the East coast, Stillman’s film centers on the perpetually charming Greta Gerwig’s Violet and her three best pals as the foursome attempt to navigate the rough waters of friendship and romance in collegiate life. However, Stillman’s film twists around that bland and done-to-death premise with his most effervescent and light-hearted film yet, a fairy tale set in the real world and acted out by memorably off-beat and good-hearted characters.
Violet’s best friends are named Heather and Rose (Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke, respectively), and none of them bats an eye when they meet the inevitable fourth member of their posse – transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton). They are ceaselessly perky and put-together, true believers in the best of things, optimists who are convinced that their brand of pep (plus bonus donuts and dancing) can heal anyone’s woes. The damsels in question are typically not the ones in distress – they cheerfully head up their own suicide prevention hotline and apparent drop-in facility. Eager to help, the provide snacks and coffee (but only to those who are genuinely suicidal) and some sympathetic ears. They are, of course, not the hippest cats around campus – but that’s part of what allows them to open their arms to the slightly more cynical Lily without question.
Of course, while Stillman’s damsels are all lovely and surprisingly irony-free, they are still not without ridicule. The suicide prevention center and some of its long-standing outreach are laughed at, the school’s newspaper’s editor-in-chief thinks they are all a joke (and doesn’t hesitate to tell them so), the moronic frat boys they attempt to sooth with genuine affection end up hurting them, and even Lily’s more mature crush (and his girlfriend, oops!) don’t take her seriously. Things get still worse when Lily falls (sort of) for the weirdly dashing Charlie Walker (Adam Brody), who isn’t who he says he is, and who might also be charming silly old Violet, who is in turn reeling from her own broken heart. Violet, convinced that she knows best, doles out tidbits of advice like “handsome men are to be avoided” to her friends and ostensible patients alike, but even she cannot avoid the allure of a man who can both lie and dance as well as she can.
For the film’s first half, Gerwig appears to be putting a nerdy and over-the-top twist “manic pixie dream girl” trope, yet Stillman eventually presents background on Violet that not only fleshes her out into a more interesting character, it actually turns her into our leading lady – not Lily, who previously appeared to be our rock and anchor in the film. And while Violet is becoming more likable and more relatable to the audience, Lily steadily slips into something unexpected in the dizzy, fizzy world of Damsels – she very nearly becomes a villain. This slow turn and twist adds pep to the film’s otherwise somewhat flat second act, adding both intrigue and depth to a film that often feels like a light exercise in cinematic delight.
Damsels in Distress is an irrepressibly twee cinematic experience, but Stillman and his cast are so earnest and honest with their work that it’s fully capable of delighting willing audiences. And, in between the introduction of “international dance crazes” and Violet’s obsession with a bar of soap she finds in a hotel bathroom, Damsels in Distress actually has plenty to say about such big stuff as love, dreams, and friendship – and the insanity that comes with wanting any of them. As the film concludes with Violet and crew introducing the long-teased sambola (and much more) in no less than two different song-and-dance numbers, the audience is either completely on board with the world Stillman has created, or they’ve checked out long ago. While such a film might grate on the nerves of more hardened moviegoers, others will be smiling and sambola-ing out the theater door (I certainly did).
The Upside: Fun and frisky performances, a fizzy tone, the ever-present charm of both Gerwig and Brody, the return of Stillman in general, and dancing! Lots of dancing!
The Downside: The film’s light-hearted, lightweight tone and cutesy feel will surely turn off some viewers, most likely people who are opposed to smiling.
On the Side: You too can learn how to dance The Sambola! International Dance Craze!