Sporadically laugh-out-loud funny and offering the occasional polished pearl of wisdom, Damsels In Distress is a whimsical breeze that never ruffles too many feathers. It’s the fourth film from director Whit Stillman, a filmmaker infatuated with upper-class US WASPs – a breed of person coined in his 1990 film Metropolitan as the ‘urban haute bourgeoisie’.
Stillman doesn’t stray far from familiar terrain with Damsels, a frothy comedy set on the Seven Oaks college campus. Here, new student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) falls in with a trio of uber-groomed girls who are single-handedly attempting to save the campus from dumb jocks and suicidal thoughts. Leading them is the buttoned-up Violet (Greta Gerwig), who is armed with her own singular world views. Together, this unusual quartet charters matters of the heart (and head) in their search for love and enlightenment.
Films like Legally Blonde have explored similar college-based comedy before, but Damsels is more interested in Woody Allen-style witticisms than frisky female empowerment. It’s an odd experiment in off-kilter characters and relaxed plotting. At first irritating – Gerwig talks in a monotone drawl that sometimes has one searching for subtitles, while pal Megalyn Echikunwoke trips over a truly horrendous British accent – Stillman’s film is a jumbled confectionary that will turn some off within minutes.
Get past the kooky performances, though and the super-dry screenplay packs in some sardonic nod-winks. Echikunwoke’s awful accent is, in the end, revealed as a joke, while Violet’s increasingly crackpot schemes to spread the love culminate in a gigglesome encounter with a bar of soap. Nothing’s off limits here, with a running gag about anal sex getting the biggest laughs, and a closing musical number that’s pure sunshine. A deadpan curio, then, Damsels exists in its own little bubble of weirdness – much like its lead quartet. 3/5