|LFF: Review - Damsels in Distress (Surprise Film)|
|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Monday, 24 October 2011 08:45|
Director: Whit Stillman
Do you like Greta Gerwig? Do you like tap dancing? Then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this year’s LFF Surprise Film: Damsels in Distress. With all the sugary charm of a pretentious Mean Girls remake, Whit Stillman’s college comedy follows Violet (Gerwig) and her girly clique as they attempt to reduce the number of sad students on campus by running the Suicide Prevention Centre – a place where people are given free coffee and doughnuts. Providing they can prove they’re clinically depressed.
Lily (Tipton) has only been at Seven Oaks for a few minutes before she’s snapped up by the group. Taken on as their latest improvement project, Lily is treated to an onslaught of absurd and arrogant philosophising. “The tendency to seek someone cooler than you is always a stretch. Why not find someone who’s frankly inferior?” suggests the pedantic Violent. After all, improving the lives of those socially, intellectually and aesthetically beneath them is the Christian thing to do. “Well, Judeo-Christian, to be exact,” she adds.
It’s a great turn from Greta Gerwig, who delivers the over-written dialogue with brilliant timing, smiling inanely as she counsels girls suffering from bad break-ups. But when Violet splits with her boyfriend and Lily finds herself paired with a guy who likes bum sex, things get a little less clear-cut.
You’d expect some moral lessons to be dished out around this point. They aren’t. Instead, the characters' personalities change without warning or development – all the while repeating Stillman’s signature speech patterns. That’s the frustrating thing in Damsels in Distress: the simple lack of progression, both in terms of plot and people. Even with cute chapter headings (that betray a bitty script), there’s no sense of who should end up with who, or whom we should feel sorry for. Things simply carry along in the same vein as the opening twenty minutes, and then just end.
But there are laughs to be had. A lot, in fact. Gerwig’s lead idiot is spot-on, while her friend Rose (a deadpan Megalyn Echikunwoke) fires out bitter one-liners and repeats the word “operator” until it becomes hilarious. The odd bit of physical comedy works too (hello, attempted suicides), while the male cast members milk some amusing comedy moments from their moronic status, to the point where they can’t even name the colour of their own eyes.
This is frothy, silly stuff that easily entertains, but don't be fooled: it's gaping with holes. But if you can tolerate the inconsistent characters and a soundtrack that only seems to alternate between two bits of music, Damsels in Distress has an infectious sense of screwball fun that is as likeable as it is divisive. By the time the song-and-dance sequence arrives at the end, you’ll either be praying the college blows up, or you’ll go to bed dreaming of musical numbers featuring Adam Brody. For all its elaborate vocabulary, Stillman’s comedy lacks the sophistication of Mean Girls, but one thing it does have? Greta Gerwig tap dancing. Violet maintains that it's a good way to make sad people happy. Judging by Gerwig's tap dancing display (the second in the LFF after The Dish and the Spoon), I'm inclined to agree.