Whit Stillman / USA / 2012 / 99 mins
Anyone who’s been to university will be all too familiar with those odd students surely too ditzy and clueless to ever be considered ‘academic’ – and if you don’t know what I mean, you might just be one of them. It’s a group of such misfits that befriends college newbie Lily (Analeigh Tipton) on their crusade to fight depression in the suicide prevention centre, teach frat boys about colours, and develop a new international dance craze – all from their college dormitory.
There’s something very likable about this film; full of satire and clearly able to laugh at itself, writer/director Whit Stillman mocks the clichés of the American college comedy and parodies that all too familiar melodramatic nothingness of youth. Greta Gerwig as Violet stands out as the intriguing, well-intentioned do-gooder, struggling to overcome her own depression and understand the pitfalls of uncommitted young love. Although reflecting the quiet unimportance of the characters’ situations, Tipton is frustratingly flat, while Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke as the group’s tag-alongs do little to distinguish themselves beyond tired stereotypes.
This film won’t be for everyone. While it will no doubt attract some die-hard fans, it doesn’t quite go far enough down the line of quirky awkwardness to really be cult classic material; the shallowness is a little too deep, the insular nonsense becomes that bit too serious, and the not-hilariously-funny-in-the-first-place jokes are repeated once too often. As the film progresses, the quiet chuckles fade as the real essence of Stillman’s otherwise developing characters are left frustratingly inaccessible, particularly Violet. The nearly-there story fails to progress into anything of much interest or narrative value, even for the genre, making Damsels in Distress a film that doesn’t quite know what it is – or, at least, doesn’t quite have the courage to get there.
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