Film Capsule: Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress

Those familiar with Whit Stillman’s critically-acclaimed body of work know that his finest moments tend to exist in the sweet spot between pretentious and absurd.

Now 60 years of age, Stillman is at it again, returning with his first feature film in more than a decade – a coming-of-age tale about a group of girls on an elite – if not wholly unhinged – college campus. 

The hook here is that every character lacks a certain degree of self-awareness, whether it’s the faux Brit, the anal Frenchman, the depressed grief counselor, the color-blind frat boy, the grand-standing editor, the straight-laced operator, or the suicidal floozy (just to name a few).

Stillman’s characters are layered … and rich – no doubt about that. But – as is so often the case with Stillman films – a lot of the wordplay seems forced, as if the director is reaching for something that really isn’t there. The social debs are far too debby, the brain-dead jocks are far too brain dead, and the dialogue reads like a ripe blast of Tennyson.

Is Damsels in Distress an intelligent movie? Why, of course, it’s an intelligent movie. In fact, the problem is it’s often far too intelligent for its own good (see David Rabe’s Hurlyburly for more on this point).

In terms of casting, Damsels offers Greta Gerwig doing her best Chloe Sevigny, (The O.C.‘s) Adam Brody doing his best Jason Schwartzman, and Aubrey Plaza doing her best, well, Aubrey Plaza.

The bottom line: If Elizabethan deadpan is your thing, then it’s possible Damsels is for you. But if you want a comedy that really nails the irrepressible angst of post-adolescent life, you’d be much better served checking out 2010’s Tiny Furniture, which is streaming on Netflix right now, but will more than likely be pulled once Lena Dunham’s new HBO series breaks ground on April 15.

(Damsels in Distress hits movie theaters in New York and L.A. on April 6th, with a national rollout to follow).