Damsels in Distress stars Greta Gerwig as Violet, a student at the fictional Seven Oaks University. Violet and her friends (played by Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) dress elegantly and approach life with a heady sense of purpose. They want to change the world--but they’ll also settle for reforming dumb jocks and preventing peer suicides with donuts and coffee. New to their group is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a bright, modern young lady who becomes more skeptical of her friends the longer she’s around them. Her conflict with Violet forms the backbone for Damsels, but it doesn’t have the same kind of impact as the central conflicts of Stillman’s other films. Those characters had sharper edges, and despite having more in common with each other than they’d like to admit, were stubbornly devoted to their own perspectives. It’s the same with Violet and Lily, but they feel less defined, as if Stillman didn’t understand them as well as he understood his previous characters. In Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, we saw characters who had strong emotional cores and who longed for something. Violet and Lily, by comparison, feel diluted by their quirkiness and the quirkiness of everyone around them.
Which brings me back to that Stillman-Anderson link I mentioned earlier. There is a key difference between the two filmmakers. Anderson has a visual style that’s striking and recognizable. His framings often resemble group portraits. They feel staged, purposeful, and significant. But more than that, they create a strong sense that we’re seeing the world filtered through Anderson’s imagination, not the world as it is. We’re aware that we’re watching a movie, and yet we accept its artificiality and even embrace it as part of what makes Anderson who he is. But more than that, it helps us accept his oddball characters as plausible and endearing. If the world around them is strange, why shouldn’t they be as well?
Damsels might have fared better with a similar approach. Instead, we're shown the world largely as it is. Stillman's compositions are simple, straightforward--practical, even. This worked fine for his three previous films, where the characters and dialogue were stronger, but in Damsels in Distress the characters feel too quirky for the world around them. What’s missing are any visual cues that the physical world itself is a bit off. Without that, I can’t completely buy into the extreme naivety of these characters. I need to see that the world they live in has been refracted through the same mind, but instead we're shown the "real world,” which is a world these characters just don’t belong in.
Still, I didn't dislike Damsels. It still has that same refreshing Stillman charm and optimism that sets his work apart from other contemporary filmmakers. It's just missing a few vital ingredients. Otherwise, I think it would have soared.