Sunday 26 January 2020

Wasp tale lacks sting

Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Damsels in Distress

(15A, limited release, 99 minutes) Director: Whit Stillman. Stars: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke.

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The early films of Whit Stillman are dear to my heart. So Waspish that his own uncle is credited with coining that term, Stillman has always had a fascination with dissecting the pretentions and social squeamishness of well-born American youth, and in Metropolitan and Barcelona, he turned slender stories of failed friendships and frustrated romances into delightful, wispy comedies comparable with Woody Allen's best work.

So beautifully written and crafted were those films, that many predicted a glittering career that has sadly failed to materialise.

After releasing the likeable but less accomplished Last Days of Disco in 1998, Stillman disappeared from view. Damsels in Distress is his first feature in 14 years.

The writer/director has always revelled in Wildean paradox, and Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) is a walking, talking embodiment of humorous contradiction.

A senior-year student at a leafy, east coast college, Seven Oaks, Violet dresses in a preppy, repressed way and is a stern moralist when it comes to her fellow students.

She and her friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) have dedicated themselves to improving the souls of the idiotic boys who inhabit the college's fraternity houses.

They also run the campus suicide prevention centre, where they dispense coffee, doughnuts and patronising advice to those who are finding the going tough.

And when a new girl called Lily (Analeigh Tipton, an alumnus of America's Top Model, but a surprisingly decent actress) comes to Seven Oaks, Violet takes her under her wing.

Violet subjects Lily to free-flowing lectures about her mission to help the stupid, and the moral weakness of those who strive to be different.

But for all her talk of conformism, Violet is the most eccentric person in the place, and her attempts to control her wayward nature are doomed to failure.

Violet is a classic Stillman character, an entirely unlikely human being of a type you dearly wish really did exist.

Damsels in Distress runs out of steam some way before the end, and though Greta Gerwig gets the Stillman tone just right, the character she plays is a construct riddled with holes.

It's great to see Whit Stillman back, but Damsels in Distress could have done with a little less gratuitous cleverness and a lot more dramatic focus.

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