“You think I’m going to kill myself and make you look bad!,” Depressed Debbie (Aubrey Plaza) spits out in response to the umpteenth concerned inquiry from a stranger. “No,” replies Violet (Greta Gerwig). “I’m worried that you’ll kill yourself and make yourself look bad.”
Violet means well. She considers what she does at Seven Oaks University a more rarefied form of social work. Alongside Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), she runs the campus suicide prevention center for the sake of desperate souls and only dates less attractive dolts like Frank (Ryan Metcalf) in an effort to help their “strategic development” and minimize her risk of heartbreak.
But surely, girls like Depressed Debbie don’t label themselves. Is she only down because everyone insists that she looks the part? And are boys like Frank and Thor (Billy Magnussen) only as dumb as they’re told? In fact, how arrogant must these damsels be in order to go around correcting their courses of everyone else’s lives?
In admittedly reductive terms, Damsels in Distress -- the first film from writer-director Whit Stillman since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco -- is Mean Girls or Heathers transplanted to an Ivy League-like institution of higher learning where everything’s aglow and to which co-ed living is a fairly new concept. It’s such a recent transition that our leading ladies all but faint when confronted with the sheer odor of unwashed students living the Roman (not Greek) life. Their latest mission: to quite literally introduce soap into their frat houses, and maybe civility somewhere down the line.
Of course, they aren’t without their opponents -- namely Rick DeWolfe (Zach Woods), editor of college newspaper the Daily Complainer -- and Lily steadily begins to push back against the soft-spoken decrees of her friends as she allows herself to be courted by the suave Charlie (Adam Brody). Violet doesn’t take it as a betrayal, but despite best laid plans, she does find herself the subject of heartbreak and becomes one of the broken people whom she might pride herself on helping.
The droll dialogue and well-articulated neuroses of Stillman’s previous films -- Disco, Barcelona before that, and Metropolitan before that -- have been preserved in his decade-plus absence, and with Damsels, he instills more of an anachronistic vibe with which to separate his young wards from the current culture (which, at 60, he may find himself separated from to begin with). Cell phones are shown, but never played up, while social networks online have no apparent bearing on the characters’ actual social interactions. In fact, when the girls shake a leg to the strains of Real McCoy's “Another Night, Another Dream” at a frat party, one has to pause and consider in which decade exactly this is supposed to be set.
No, this is just the gentle type of farce that sees Rose perpetually denouncing every man that comes a-courting as a “playboy or operator,” never just one or the other; that features a running gag about education students trying to off themselves from atop a two-story building ("If they can't destroy themselves, how are they going to teach America's children?"); and devotes an entire, somewhat flat subplot to one character’s quaint religious preference towards anal sex.
For the most part, though, it’s a film filled with simple pleasures, as the actresses deliver Stillman’s sharper dialogue with melodious ease (Gerwig especially) while the men often opt for convincing obtuseness. Magnussen proves to be the film’s secret weapon of sorts, particularly when he explains how his parents forced him to skip kindergarten, thus robbing him of the ability to discern colors. The senses seem to be of particular interest to Stillman this time around, between Thor’s optical obstacle, the damsels’ super-sensitive scent, and Violet’s ultimate goal to change the world by way of a new dance craze (the invented Sambola, though she favors tap as a treatment for depression).
To that end, the film abruptly interrupts its own climactic sentiment -- a fair message about how people do generally need other people in order to improve themselves -- with an honest-to-goodness rainbow ex machina and not one, but two musical sequences. It seems that, much like college itself, Damsels is the perfect time for Stillman to indulge in these whims of his. Welcome back, Whit.