Violet, the robotlike alpha female in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, wears sweater sets and A-line skirts to class. She speaks formally at all times, quickly spitting out well-turned-over opinions such as, “The intelligence line is not an immutable barrier.” She prefers boyfriends who are kinda dumb and not all that good-looking, and wishes to better the world by inventing a new dance craze. In the meantime, she takes new students under her wing and goes to frat parties in the interest of “youth outreach,” believing that the guys are “crying out for help and guidance.”
In short, Violet is unlike you or anybody you know, and it’s a problem.
Stillman’s return to the screen after 14 years qualifies as a disappointment—because its characters are unrecognizable to those of us inhabiting the real world, and because, despite its mounds and mounds of dialogue, it ultimately doesn’t have a sticking thought in its pretty head. What Damsels in Distress is even about is a mystery: In the first, it’s about Violet (Greta Gerwig, excellent if elusive) and her two equally stiff roommates (Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) taking in a new student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton). Then it’s about Violet’s heart—who knew she even had one?—getting broken. Then it’s about Lily’s dalliances. Fleetingly, it follows an attempt to pull a suicidal peer out of the darkness, while other depressives, whom Violet attempts to socializes with donuts and tap-dancing lessons, stay even further in the background.
Being a film by Stillman, the blueblooded D.C.-born director of ’90s WASP sendups like Metropolitan and Barcelona, Damsels in Distress is above all a farce. You’re not supposed to entirely believe that, for instance, one of the oh-so-dim frat boys has to study primary colors because his parents made him skip kindergarten, and that everything can end with a song-and-dance number. And it is often funny, with Stillman waxing both dry (regarding party attendees: “There’s enough material here for a lifetime of social work”) and silly (when Violet skips town for a while, she stays at a Motel 4, cheaper than a Motel 6).
But too much of Damsels is inscrutable. (Violet, for example, is a fervent fan of cliches, “a treasure trove of human insight and knowledge.” She tells Lily, “During these formative college years, we should try to learn as many cliched and hackneyed expressions as possible. Furthermore, I think we will!” Er, OK.) Worse, it bops along too arbitrarily to really compel. (A subplot involving Charlie/Fred—don’t ask—played by The O.C.’s Adam Brody, trips over itself before going nowhere.) More egregious is the director’s playful if troubling deification of his main characters, whom he twice backlights with sunrays as they speak of helping others.
But they don’t really help others; in fact, most normal human beings would find the girls’ insistence on inserting themselves into people’s lives downright irritating. Even the film’s surrealism doesn’t quite warrant grading these young women on a curve. Perhaps the characters’ oh-so-mannered bullying would be forgivable if you could relate to them in any way. But if you do, perhaps you could use an intervention yourself.