“A trio of girls set out to change the male-dominated environment of the Seven Oaks college campus, and to rescue their fellow students from depression, grunge and low standards of every kind.” So reads the IMDB synopsis for the film. It sounds like a nice film, right? Something you might like to see? If so, don’t watch Damsels in Distress.
On the first day of the new academic year, chintzy chums Violet, Heather and Rose (Gerwig, MacLemore and Echikunwoke, respectively) recruit transfer student Lily (Tipton) as a friend and fellow officer in the campus’ Suicide Prevention Center. The four girls bumble their way through life with sickening enthusiasm, but their attempts at rescuing people that the synopsis hints at are minimal: offering doughnuts and tap dancing classes to the visitors of the Suicide Prevention Center, and bars of soap to the stinking frat boys.
There is little to like about Damsels in Distress. The dialogue strives for eloquence, but instead feels forced, contrived and distracting. It is a contrivance that runs throughout the production, beginning with the floral themed names of the four protagonists and ending with not one, but two painful musical numbers before the credits finally roll. It can’t help, of course, that none of the cast are sufficiently strong to sustain the tone of the piece (Tipton hits her marks like she’s running through a
dress rehearsal, and Adam Brody is cringe inducing as the painfully old-looking literature student). Brody’s turn is a prime example of the poor casting that blights Damsels in Distress – he’s 32. He looks it. Since he left college thirteen years ago, he’s made a career for himself playing students, but it’s wearing thin.
While there is much about the film that is so twee and saccharine as to induce a toothache, it is also, at times, horribly crass. A French post-grad student, at one stage, convinces Lily to have anal sex with him, because he is a Cathar, and that’s how they do it. But all potential for comedy is lost (thanks, in part, to the 12A rating), as not a single character will even say the word ‘sex’, referring instead to ‘making love not the front way, but the other way’. The result is something darkly seedy and sinister among all the staid grins and pretty pencil skirts, and the film feels something like the unwanted love child of Mean Girls and The Rules of Attraction.
I’m always reluctant to give an independent film such a harsh review, and I always seek out a positive, regardless of my own personal feelings. There was one character I liked: Rick DeWolfe, the college newspaper editor despised by all. In one scene, as Violet pontificates to a gathered crowd of the importance of preserving the fraternity system on campus, she refers to “the British novelist Joseph Conrad”. DeWolfe, standing on a table, reminds Violet that Conrad was actually Polish, only to be deemed pedantic. But he wasn’t being a pedant. He was a man who took a stand and said ‘this is wrong – something is very wrong here’. Today, I feel a lot like him.
Much has been made of Damsels in Distress being Stillman’s first film in thirteen years. However, if it’s any indication of what’s to come, perhaps he should have stayed in retirement…
Damsels in Distress is now showing at is currently showing at Duke of Yorks Picturehouse, Preston Circus, Brighton BN1 4JD.
Words: Jack Casey