New review from The Movie Snob
Damsels in Distress (B-). I cannot remember ever looking forward to a movie with as much anticipation as I did this one. (OK, maybe The Empire Strikes Back.) Back in the 90s, this fellow named Whit Stillman wrote and directed three movies that I love: Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. They are mostly about romance among young adults (collegians and folks in their 20s), but they are not realistic. The characters are generally thoughtful and hyperarticulate (to the point that Woody Allen seems tongue-tied by comparison), but they still suffer from flaws and blind spots, and his movies are as concerned about manners and morality as a Jane Austen novel. Anyway, I urge you to give Metropolitan a try if you haven’t seen it, and then try the rest of Stillman’s work if you like it.
This new release is my least favorite of Stillman’s films, but I still liked it. It’s about four female roommates at a fictional university called Seven Oaks, and mainly about their ringleader Violet (Greta Gerwig, No Strings Attached) and new transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton, Crazy, Stupid, Love). Violet is extremely serious about everything she does — like making the world a better place, helping run the campus suicide prevention center, and trying to figure out the best kind of boys to date — and she constantly makes observations on these and other matters in polysyllabic Stillman fashion. And I think Gerwig does a fine job of playing Violet straight, without ever winking at the audience or lapsing into parody. Lily is more normal and brings a little bit of an outsider’s perspective to Violet’s clique. Plotwise, the movie is more of a series of vignettes about the girls and their romantic misadventures than a conventional dramatic arc.
As I say, I enjoyed it pretty well. You probably will too, if you have some taste for the absurd (like a fellow who says, in all earnestness, that he is of the Cathar religion, and another who never learned the names of the colors), and some tolerance for the fact that no real person talks (or probably thinks) like Stillman’s characters do. But I was troubled by a couple of things. First, characters say something vaguely derogatory about Catholicism on two occasions. But I wasn’t too much bothered by it because the characters are so odd and because it seems likely that they’re not supposed to have any idea what they’re talking about. Second, I was a little troubled by the film’s comic treatment of the campus suicide prevention center, and of mental illness more generally. It comes to light that one of the characters suffered from OCD in childhood, and I’m not sure what to make of it. The film doesn’t make fun of it, but I’m not sure why it’s in there at all. In conclusion, I’d say the film is just a little more absurd and less focused than Stillman’s earlier films, and not as satisfying. But it’s definitely a different kind of moviegoing experience. If it sounds interesting, look for it at your local arthouse theater, and maybe Stillman won’t wait 14 years before making his next film.