Violet, the robotlike alpha female in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, wears sweater sets and A-line skirts to her classes at a snooty college. She speaks formally all the time, quickly spitting out well-turned-over opinions such as, “The intelligence line is not an immutable barrier.” She prefers boyfriends who are kinda dumb and not all that good-looking, and wishes to better the world by inventing a new dance craze. In the meantime, she takes new students under her wing and goes to frat parties in the interest of “youth outreach,” believing that the guys are “crying out for help and guidance.”
In short, Violet is unlike you or anybody you know, and it’s a problem.
Stillman’s return to the screen after 14 years qualifies as a disappointment because its characters are unrecognizable and, despite mounds and mounds of dialogue, it ultimately doesn’t have a sticking thought in its pretty head. What Damsels in Distress is even about is a mystery, as it flits from Violet (Greta Gerwig, excellent if elusive) and her two equally stiff roommates (Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) taking in a new student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), to Violet’s heart — who knew she even had one? — getting broken, to Lily’s dalliances, to, fleetingly, an attempt to pull a suicidal student out of her darkness. (Violet does try to help others with doughnuts and tap-dancing classes, but those depressives are even further in the background.)
The film is, admittedly, a farce. You’re not supposed to entirely believe that, for instance, one of the oh-so-dim frat boys has to study his colors because his parents made him skip kindergarten, and everything ends with a song-and-dance number. And, true to form, it is often funny, with Stillman veering from dry (regarding party attendees: “There’s enough material here for a lifetime of social work”) to silly (when Violet skips town for a while, she stays at a Motel 4, cheaper than a Motel 6).
But too much of Damsels is inscrutable. (Violet, for example, is a fervent fan of cliches, “a treasure trove of human insight and knowledge.” She tells Lily, “During these formative college years, we should try to learn as many cliched and hackneyed expressions as possible. Furthermore, I think we will!” Er, OK.) It bops along too randomly to really compel. (A subplot involving Charlie/Fred — don’t ask — played by The O.C’s Adam Brody, trips over itself before going nowhere.) Worse, Stillman seems to want to deify his main characters, twice backlighting them with the sun as they speak of helping others.
But they don’t really help others; in fact, most normal human beings would find the girls’ insistence on inserting themselves into people’s lives downright irritating — even the film’s absurdist angle doesn’t quite warrant grading on a curve. Perhaps the characters’ oh-so-mannered bullying would be forgivable if you could relate to them in any way. But if you do, perhaps you could use an intervention yourself.