Damsels in Distress

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 25, 2012

Damsels in Distress

Few have done as much as Whit Stillman to influence the current state of American independent cinema, which is why it's such a shame that he hasn't been able to be a part of it. Absent since 1997's revered "The Last Days of Disco," Whit's singularly sarcastic voice returns to the screen with "Damsels in Distress." Less a step forward than a freshening up, "Damsels" attaches new faces to Whit's dialogue, but still fails to find a fresh spark.

However, these new voices alone may be worth the price of admission. Greta Gerwig ("Greenberg") takes to Stillman's academic script about a group of cruel prissy university girls who decide to weed out the abundance of suicides and the atrocious body odor, like a fish to water. She perfectly encapsulates the entitlement, ignorance, and abundant glee that has characterized Stillman's characters to date. Her "backups" - Analeigh Tipton as an audience surrogate "new girl", or Adam Brody as a love interest -provide a new, unseen angle on the hyper-privileged youths who characterize Whit's work (more hip than sardonic.) But none of them embody it in the way Greta does.

Still, one wonderful performance cannot carry a movie. Stillman becomes so detached from his characters, and his world so far detached from our own, that it becomes impossible to sympathize with his heroines. Where his old films like "Metropolitan" found us on the side of repugnant people; feeling their pain and sympathizing for their plight, "Damsels" is content to simply take cheap shots. How can we care about these people when even he doesn't seem to?

Still, the vibrant colors and genuinely entertaining punch-lines make the experience worthwhile, even if the weak DVD extras seem like a droll commentary and a few behind-the-scenes featurettes do little to sell us on the "whole package." It may not be these "Damsels" who are in distress, but Stillman. Let's hope he can handle his own crisis with the same grace as his characters.

"Damsels in Distress"