It hits you from the washed-out pink opening credits with their muted soundtrack: Whit Stilman’s “Damsels in Distress” is like an 80s teen movie on tranquilizers. You feel concern for a director trapped in another era, from his aesthetic and storyline to the central clique of characters. The female protagonists in “Damsels“ are all named after flowers: initially they are Violet, Heather and Rose, and in the opening scene they zero in on Lily, a new girl browsing at the university freshers’ fair. Unlike their more modern and relaxed new recruit, the existing clique marks itself out from the other students through their retro costumes with a classic/feminine style that blends Banana Republic and Anthropologie. Violet, Heather and Rose also distinguish themselves with an insistently sanctimonious, do-good attitude, reminiscent of a campus religious group on the prowl for new converts. The girls do define themselves as good Christians, but this is mentioned in passing, as one symptom of a larger tendency.
Violet, the group’s sturdy blonde ringleader, is clearly the one with the most problems. Her religious conviction and love of cliché are of a piece with her obsessive-compulsive tendencies: all manifest a desire for control in the face of life’s unpredictability.
Violet and her friends founded the Suicide Prevention Society, where they offer donuts, coffee and their strange brand of sympathy to anyone considered to be at risk. They encourage the depressed to take up tap-dancing. The clique’s broader goal is to improve people’s lives: frat boys, for example. While other students dismiss these young men as a bunch of elitist, over-privileged morons, the girls insist that frat boys should be pitied and protected precisely because they are stupid. According to Violet, dating problematic boys offers an additional advantage: not only can you work to improve them, they can also make you look better. She has little time for intelligent men with ‘cookie-cutter good looks’ because she (ironically) thinks them too arrogant. The girls’ theory about frat boys is sorely tested throughout the film: alongside these ladylike and articulate young women, the boys appear even more childish and deficient, challenging even the most determined girl to pretend that all is going to plan.
The film reveals just enough about Violet’s childhood to explain her current obsessions, tastefully avoiding re-enactments. Oddly, while the clique is set off from the other students in a caricatured way, the girls (like all of the students in the film) have their subtleties and are allowed to evolve, just as young adults should be. They can profess an opinion with absolute conviction at one moment, only to change their mind after a reasoned debate with their peers. Alongside this intellectual evolution, their emotional evolution sees them regularly re-evaluate their behaviour according to other people’s reactions. In essence, the young characters in this film are moulding their future adult selves, a dynamic process that is engaging to watch.
The film remains a strange one in many ways, starting with its bizarrely sedated atmosphere. Where most films come to life with the opening credits, “Damsels in Distress” comes to life later, and only during the characters’ dance routines. These dance scenes, no longer common in American cinema, evoke the self-consciously kitsch French art cinema of Christophe Honoré or François Ozon, but Stillman’s film is far less joyful and over-the-top. While its tendency towards deadpan links the film with contemporary independent American comedy (such as Wes Anderson’s), “Damsels in Distress” is not exactly the comedy it is advertised to be: the audience at the screening I attended seemed to feel an unease or unwillingness to laugh much at characters who seem plainly weird or disturbed in their approach to life. Violet and her friends are arguably as sympathetic as Wes Anderson’s misfits, but there is something worrying about their lack of vitality. Anderson’s characters are like plastic toys: their stubborn determination convinces you that the will carry on just fine, in all their eccentricity, when the viewer isn’t there. Stillman’s vulnerable ingenues leave the audience feeling concerned that, like spring blossoms, they may be swept away by the wind and crushed.