|Image: Sony Pictures|
We have a confession to make. Before Damsels in Distress, we’d never seen a Whit Stillman film. And while we’re sure that there’s a fair few of you in the same boat, the writer/director has a fan base that’s remained loyal since the release of his last film The Last Days of Disco in 1998.
Lily (Analeigh Tipton) has barely arrived at Seven Oaks College before she’s collared by Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and asked to join their clique. They have made it their mission to improve the lives of as many students as possible, particularly airheaded frat boys who can barely function and suicidal broken hearts. But can they maintain their upbeat attitude when they find their own hearts in jeopardy?
Damsels provoked a strikingly split opinion when it was unveiled as the surprise showing at the London Film Festival last year, seemingly irritating as many as it enchanted. It certainly makes no attempt to appeal to a broad audience. You’re either on board, or you’re not. During the first quarter of an hour or so there’s a strong chance you’ll take against its kooky (yes, we all hate that word) nature and its droll deadpanning. Or you’ll find it fresh, funny, and charming in a way that so many American independents aspire to but so few really achieve.
The first part of the film is fairly streamlined, as Lily becomes involved with the girls, their Suicide Prevention Centre (complete with donuts that are only available to the genuinely suicidal due to an agreement with the baker) and their attempts to bring a waft of fragrance to a frat party. The second half becomes increasingly fragmented, as Stillman tries give equal attention to both Gerwig (Greenberg) and Tipton (Crazy, Stupid, Love). In fairness, they’re both excellent. MacLemore and Echikunwoke have less to play with (nice and naïve and dry-witted and judgemental respectively) but they’re both very funny. The film could have been trimmed during its second half, but it never stops being entertaining.
What’s perhaps most refreshing about the film is, despite the fact that it’s conscious of how witty and playful it’s being, it’s surprisingly sincere. The group is the closest thing the film has to a pretty girl clique, but they’re no Mean Girls. Their goodwill isn’t a façade, they’re genuinely trying to help people improve themselves, and they feel that it’s the dumb and the depressed that need guidance. There are dumb jocks (the excellent Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen) to laugh at but there’s something charming about their desire to improve themselves. Thor (Magnussen) may not know the names of the colours, but, as he points out, he’s at college to learn. Even the rat playboy operator types (Adam Brody’s sharp dresser with a vague job title and Hugo Becker’s French intellectual whose interests in theology and sex overlap) have their moments of tenderness.
There’s still plenty of dark humour, even if most of it is delivered with a cheery serenity (with the notable exception of Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza, who pops up as a belligerent diagnosed depressive). It’s also aware that stating a desire to improve someone’s life is arguably a narcissistic act. But in the end, it’s a film that adores its characters and wants you to feel the same, rather than laughing at their belief that life can be improved through soap and tap. Violet’s life goal of starting a new dance craze is silly, but it’s also sincere. It’s also very, very funny.
With great performances from Gerwig and Tipton, Damsels manages to be effortlessly light, breezy, witty, laugh-out-loud funny, and completely charming. It’s excellent.