“Damsels in Distress” is like an art house “Mean Girls.” It’s about a foursome of college girls who are insufferably quirky and manufactured indie cute instead of the usual cliché catty. They look at every thing with sunny optimism and act to help crazy, depressed and stupid people from suicide. But the movie is so wrapped up in its own craziness that it ends up being about nothing at all.
As soon as the movie begins, Violet, Heather and Rose (Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke) flank a new, timid girl on the first day of college orientation. This girl in need of their help and friendship is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who starts off as a normal human being but changes when she quickly realizes her new friends are cut from a different cloth.
Their speech sounds bookish and scripted, and their voices are rigid and without normal inflection. They use vocab heavy expressions like “youth outreach,” “golden oldie,” “only numerically,” “vulgarity is in essence blasphemous” and most notably of all, “Playboy Operator.” When Lily asks about the frat houses on campus, it turns out traditional slang, like “Greeks,” is also foreign to them, but that can be excused because their campus only has houses with Roman letters.
They operate a suicide prevention center in which they encourage depressed people to tap dance and eat donuts. Violet wants to start a new dance craze like the Charleston or Twist, but it turns out she’s an emotionally damaged orphan and is struggling with relationship problems.
The problem with these characters is that they’re hypocritical. They’re just as damaged and crazy as the people they aim to help, so this level of sunny optimism has never sounded more condescending. But the movie tries to write this off as intentional, firstly because Violet isn’t depressed, she’s just “in a tailspin,” and secondly because she doesn’t see why suffering from a fault prevents you from criticizing it in others.
But it’s a cheat, and “Damsels in Distress” seems to break its own silly rules at will. They aim to date frat boys, preferably moronic ones so they can improve them, but claim to resist the urges of other handsome men. It seems as if they carry a specific kind of odor. They also object to institutions and elitism found in the school newspaper, but they celebrate the frat houses and argue there is a difference. The movie isn’t really sure what these girls believe but knows it should be offbeat and quirky.
“Damsels and Distress” plays like a perpetual eye roll. It is exhausting semantics and word play for its own sake. The movie is directed by Whit Stillman, who is called a precursor to both Mike Leigh and Wes Anderson and certainly borrows other pages from Woody Allen. But Stillman lacks the realism in Leigh, the visual bravura in Anderson and the endearing wit of Allen. It’s unlikely that the three of them combined could put out something this insufferable.
1 ½ stars