Movie review: Flimsy plot fills 'Damsels' with distress

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In "Damsels in Distress," a coed takes aim at the editor of her college newspaper, The Daily Complainer.

She brands him "unkind, self-righteous and pedantic -- in short, a model journalist." Or, in this case, movie reviewer.

"Damsels in Distress" is Whit Stillman's first movie in 14 years, and maybe I've lost my appetite for his amusing forays into the lives of 20-somethings, or perhaps the timing is off for Pennsylvanians. In real life, many college students have been grappling with a barrage of bomb threats and child sexual abuse scandals.

'Damsels in Distress'

2 stars = Mediocre
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore.
  • Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content including some sexual material.

"Damsels" seems as light as cappuccino froth and a distant although related cousin to 1990's "Metropolitan," Mr. Stillman's first movie which earned him an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. He suffered no sophomore slump with 1994's "Barcelona" and built 1998's "The Last Days of Disco" around superb leads Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale.

Mr. Stillman's latest is set at an East Coast college where a perfumed pack of young women -- Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) -- take transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under their wing.

"Would our help and guidance be something you'd appreciate or would you rather sink or swim on your own?" Violet asks Lily.

They caution her that their school is "notorious for its B.O.," perhaps because it once was an all-male bastion that admitted women late in the game. The three have opinions about everything, from the transformative power of sensational-smelling soap to the chance to use frathouse socials for "youth outreach." Oh, and women should seek someone who's inferior -- a "sad sack" -- and help him realize or find his potential.

The women also staff the Suicide Prevention Center where they dispense coffee and doughnuts and offer dancing as a mood elevator. Violet, after all, aims to do something significant that can change the course of human history, such as starting a new dance craze.

The men in their orbit include a sad sack and his friend who got to college without being able to identify colors, a Frenchman who already has a girlfriend and some weird ideas to boot, and a businessman (Adam Brody) who isn't what he seems.

Violet enters a "tailspin" in the face of romantic rejection, and she and the others try to regain their equilibrium while never forgetting the advantages of good hygiene and even better dance steps.

Ms. Gerwig, who looks strikingly like a youthful Ms. Sevigny, speaks in an old-fashioned stilted manner as if she were channeling a Jane Austen heroine. The movie is divided by title cards such as "The Algebra of Love" and has more than its share of ruses, misunderstandings and clever exchanges and one background bombshell never explored.

In that regard, "Damsels" is almost like a movie version of Pinterest, a virtual bulletin board growing in popularity, with characters, oddball comic bits and insights posted for all to see.

It's impossible not to compare this movie with his previous three, all of which I enjoyed, and find it lacking. Daily Complainer, here I come.

Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill and Destinta Bridgeville.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:


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