Three quirky college girls, led by the quirky Violet (Greta Gerwig), try to improve their campus in a variety of quirky ways. It’s all very quirky.
If you like that sort of thing, Damsels in Distress will be right up your street. If not, the “distress” part of the title will feel oppressively apparent. There’s perhaps an unprecedented level of idiosyncrasy on display throughout, yet at the same time, the film feels strangely flat. For all its cartoonish characters and general wackiness, it just seems to limp along, like a clown that’s been shot in the foot.
You could start watching as the most ardent feminist, and by the end you’d hate all women. But you’d hate all men too, so at least there’s a hateful equality at play. This is because none of the characters are vaguely likeable. They’re all arrogant or creepy or just boring. While it’s not necessary for a film to have likeable characters in order to be successful, it is necessary that we understand their actions; that they act in character. These characters are inconsistent to the point of incoherence, so we never know what the point of anyone is.
Not only are these nonsensical characters privileged and wealthy and self-important, they’re also relentlessly annoying. Spending time in their company would be like being constantly judged by some lifeless, colourful shapes with voices which sound somewhere between a whale and a drill.
There are some refreshing, recognisable faces which pop-up, such as Zach Woods from In The Loop, Alia Shawkat from Arrested Development, and the brilliant Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation. However, their appearances are all far too brief, before we’re thrown back into the film’s painfully forced eccentricity.
It all feels ultimately pointless; the themes of depression and suicide are prominent without ever being addressed. In fact, the film’s avoidance of actually saying anything interesting about those subjects is almost impressively skilful. Its referencing those issues, and also French New Wave cinema, just end up leaving Damsels in Distress feeling remarkably pretentious. The fact that the film uses chapter headings doesn’t help.
The most irritating problem is still the overblown wackiness though. The kooky dialogue and eccentric characters leave you drained and angry, and that’s before the dancing starts. It’s as if writer/director Whit Stillman decided that it wasn’t quirky enough, so threw in some dancing for good measure. And it’s as incongruous and lifeless as the rest of the film. So there’s some consistency, if nothing else.
To give the film its due, there are one or two laughs, though that figure is probably closer to one than two; most of the jokes are so poorly delivered by the monotonous cast that they don’t work at all. But there are still worse ways to spend an hour and a half, though admittedly most of those ways involve prolonged periods of physical pain.
All in all, Damsels in Distress is one to avoid unless you like overt wackiness and/or migraines. It tries too hard to be offbeat, and ends up missing every note.