When Lily (Analeigh Tipton) changed colleges, she didn't expect to be accosted almost the very second she signed in, in this case by three fellow students who wanted to help her. In fact, they demanded they help her, and Lily was too polite to turn them down as their leader Violet (Greta Gerwig) was pretty insistent, even though she and her henchwomen Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) were very set in their ways, and those ways were designed to save their contemporaries from making serious mistakes which could lead to suicide...
Damsels in Distress was writer and director Whit Stillman's first film in well over a decade, after a long time spent on projects which never got off the ground. On this evidence, that particular Stillmanesque quality of his had grown even more Stillmany, so much so that it was his followers who had been fans ever since they saw Metropolitan who were pretty much the only ones appreciating what he was getting up to here. From one angle especially this looked to be a self-parody as he took all those distinctive styles of dialogue and distilled them into oh-so-cute exchanges where the characters' self-awareness was amped up to ludicrous degrees, to the extent that you'd be surprised they could actually put one foot in front of the other.
Not without massively over-analysing whatever they were getting up to at any rate, so it was little wonder this rubbed so many audiences up the wrong way. If you could get over that barrier of affectation you would however see that Stillman was as sincere as he could get while still managing within the boundaries of comedy, and attuning yourself to the manner of speaking and observing these girls accentuated you would be rewarded with a good number of laughs. It could be you were laughing from a patronising place, of course, as the point of view less invited identification and more invited a chortle at their relentless quirks, but stick with it, because there was a lot to like about them.
Possibly because we could take the couple of steps back that they were unable to do and survey the scene of their relationship issues. Take Violet, for example, who Lily accurately notes is perhaps setting herself for a fall from a great height if she thinks she is the guardian of all the other students, not because she's snooty about it, more down to the endless complications of negotiating your own personality when it came to offering useful (so she thinks) advice. Violet goes out with Frank (Ryan Metcalf) who she considers a "sad sack", that is, a loser, because that way his life will be improved by having a catch like her as a girlfriend and she will be improved by that act of charity. Naturally, Frank who is repeatedly described as a moron unthinkingly cheats on Violet, and this sends her into a depression.
Here is where Lily and the audience discover the young lady's dark past, though relatively as there remains a lot that's twee about it; Violet has a history of mental instability and tends to go off in a funk when things don't work out or match up to those high ideals. If this could have been rather harsh and unforgiving, somewhat like Stillman's previous film so long before in The Last Days of Disco, it didn't play that way as it came across more as if we were supposed to find the girls' quirks - and there were a lot of them - basically adorable. From Rose's suspicion of men, affected English accent and constant description of the interested males as "playboy operat-ors" to the supposedly more switched on Lily's confusion about her romantic life leading her into an unfortunate (though not explicit) sexual experimentation, there was plenty here to amuse assuming you were not irritated beyond belief, and the way it celebrated the frivolous as a fine way of chasing away the blues was quite touching. Dance numbers, too. Music by Mark Suozzo.