Whit Stillman, remember him? The heir apparent to Woody Allen, making chic, sophisticated, beautifully-shot movies about well-dressed, moneyed people trying to make sense of their brittle lives? It's been 13 long years since his last film, a gap he puts down to three years of writing a book and 10 years of trying to get several scripts produced.
So here at last is the follow-up to 1998's Last Days of Disco, but is this the work of a more mature, profound Stillman? In short, no.
Now very much a middle-aged man, Stillman still has the same obsessions – young people with more money than sense or any culture, obsessing about their looks and being ‘cool'. Stillman still writes dialogue that stretches a simple idea into what feels like a long undergraduate essay. There are the occasional gems and a couple of laughs, but boy do we have to sift through the mud to find them.
The problem with Damsels In Distress is it bears a striking resemblance to Heathers. Three posh, snobbish High School girls – Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke – take on a project in the form of Analeigh Tipton, a geeky loner who they decide to school in the arts of perfume, crisp clothing and being snotty to boys. Tipton played a big drip of water in Crazy, Stupid Love, and here plays another big drip of water. At least she can see through her gang's amazing lack of depth of subtlety, and attracts some male attention in the form Gerwig's former boyfriend, and her best friend's French beau.
Gerwig and her gang can't understand it, but do they learn that it's not just looks that are important – do they heck? Instead they obsess about running the local suicide watch group, soap and inventing a new dance.
Whereas Heathers had dialogue as sharp as a razor and a genuine sense of darkness – including teenage suicides – Damsels seems to get more superficial as it goes on. It has nothing to say about snobbery – it even seems to condone it – and the characters get dumber, dopier and learn absolutely nothing. And yet…
The whole film would be borderline unbearable were it not for the presence of the wonderful Greta Gerwig. She's being lauded as the queen of indie, and Stillman has come up trumps casting her as the gang's leader. She is always watchable, and sympathetic even when her characters are not – certainly the case here. Obsessed with curing suicides with tap dancing – yes, really – the whole film comes alive when she stages a dance to a Fred Astaire song. The closing credits feature her new dance, a sequence that will leave you feeling two hours of watching her dancing would have been infinitely better than watching Damsels In Distress.
Overall Verdict: Over-wordy, nerdy snore bore saved by a fantastic central performance by Gerwig, and some pretty photography.
Reviewer: Mike Martin