|Greta Gerwig is a Damsel in Distress|
Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is a transfer student to Seven Oaks college. On her first day, she's approached by a trio of chirpy, friendly girls: Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and the - clear leader of the gang - Violet (Greta Gerwig). The girls eagerly befriend Lily, and soon prove to be a group of ultra-conservative 'damsels' with some very peculiar outlooks on college life. They run a suicide (prevention) centre and support the deeply moronic members of the 'Roman' fraternity house when everyone else in college hates them. The film's narrative loosely tracks the foursome over the course of a year or so as they battle clinical depression (or a 'tail-spin', to use Violet's milder-sounding euphemism), experience unusual romantic encounters (such as Lily's relationship with a French transfer student whose suspect religious beliefs encourage 'non-procreational intercourse') and desperately try to invoke an international dance craze.
The main narrative is, frankly, a little all over the place. The first half is strongest - full of witty jokes once you get over the initial 'WTF is this?' factor. Often times, the film's deep-rooted absurdities work magic, or at least elicit a deserved laugh or two: whether it's a student's hilarious half-hearted 'suicide' attempt, or a doofus' (plural: doofi) hard-won ability to recognise the colours of the rainbow (don't ask). Yet it meanders aimlessly at the same time, to the point where it's impossible to tell if it's Violet or Lily acting as our protagonist / antagonist. For every joke that works, another falls flat (such as a text-based one that precedes the end credits). Even the film's funniest joke - Echikunwoke's brilliantly over-pronounced disgust at 'playboy operator types' - is repeated about ten times. Mostly, it's a constant challenge to tell whether it's a straight-up satire of cinematic artificiality or a loving embrace of it: most likely a bit of both. The twee, precocious indie humour and storytelling are likely to appall as many as they woo, truth be told. It's almost like the next step up from Clueless: even more self-aware and absurdist in its rejection of reality.
The female characters appear to be almost post-post-feminist: liberated in their conservatism and actively encouraging low standards. Violet is a wonderful creation, brought to life with understated force by the destined-to-be-great Greta Gerwig, happily back in the land of independence after a sojourn in the big leagues. Tipton - apparently some talent-show winner, or something - is left with the unenviable task of acting relatively normal and well-adjusted, even if it ultimately it's her character who emerges as the most uncertain of the lot. The boys, on the other head, are presented as air-heads: from the dim Frank (Ryan Metclaf) to the dapper but suspicious Fred (Adam Brody). It is a deeply contrived but oddly engaging gender dynamic: at the very least, it's not what you expect from a campus comedy, again reinforcing the potentially satirical intentions of the creator. Yet the characters are so earnest that we grow to like them despite frequently having to laugh at their acts of insanity. The characters are so willing to push through failure and adversity you may just find yourself rooting for them. It's a troublesome balancing act that doesn't always work, but makes for consistently fascinating viewing even during the tougher and rougher stretches.
Damsels in Distress is presented to the audience in a way that drifts inseparably between satire and loving homage. The visual design and cinematography recall the hazy romanticized camerawork of classic Hollywood: the opening (bright pink) titles are decidedly retro, the characters genuinely radiate when they're in sunlight, and there's even a technicolour marvel of a dance sequence at the end. The soundtrack, meanwhile, sounds like elevator music renditions of the cheesier Elvis Presley numbers, and it kind of works in a bizarre sort of way. It can become too much from time to time, truth be told, but overall it tries its darndest to charm the audience technically.
Charmed is something many people will be by Damsels in Distress: whether it's the peculiarly engaging dialogue, the conviction of Stillman's stylistic eccentricites or the satirical yet nostalgic presentation. Others will be deeply frustrated by the very same things. For me, it was not an easy film to love, but nor was it easy to hate. Wildly inconsistent yet undeniably distinctive, Damsels in Distress is, basically, 'different'. For better and for worse.