Monday, 30 November -0001

Film Review: 11 May

Written by Kat Brown


A bunch of plastic flowers

A chance to bloom is lost in this weak arrangement


Never one to hurry, director Whit Stillman (The Last Days Of Disco, Metropolitan) steers his fourth feature into harbour 13 years after his last, a quirky comedy that could outstrip Marmite in the loveit- or-hate-it stakes.

Four college girls try to instil manners, grace and happiness into their fellow students: sweet and simple, but weeks later I am still trying to figure out if I hated it or was simply allergic.

Fragrant flowers Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and leader Violet (Greta Gerwig, with all the matronly dignity of the QE2) have put aside their cares. Instead, they try to cure their fellow students of depression and suicidal impulses through doughnuts, good hygiene and dance classes. Violet also harbours dreams of inventing a new dance craze.

Their love lives are sacrificed to a similarly dicey altar: they only date men who are inferior, in the hopes of improving them for their next girlfriend. They patrol their college in the prim attire of 1950s secretaries and soon adopt the equally lovely naive Lily into their fold (former America's Next Top Model contestant Analeigh Tipton). It's like Mean Girls with a mission: Well-Meaning Girls, if you like.

A neat plot, strong cast and some terrific dialogue means that these Damsels – and the useless individuals squiring them – should be splendid. The only person more dense than Heather is frat boy Thor, who is only just learning to identify colours, and former The OC heart-throb Adam Brody gets a fun turn as a man with several things to hide and a neat turn of phrase, but it's all so incredibly stilted that you never feel allowed to settle in.

Stillman directs like a puppeteer: every line, scene or tap dance reminds you that what you are watching is fake, particularly galling when one of the characters is going through a crisis.

The relationships between the girls are also peculiar. Lily is a strange beast, part wide-eyed ingénue and part jellyfish. She accepts the patronage of Violet's group as her due, and they in turn are so busy attempting to better themselves through humility and doughnuts that they accept her criticism rather than tell her where to put it. A weird subplot involving religion and anal sex has been cut from the fi nal version to make it 12A-friendly, leaving Lily with little more to do than be the group's fun sponge.

The dignified Rose underlines the problems of this film: a devoted Anglophile, her affected English accent slides off key when deciding that one of the girls' potential love interest is a 'playboy or operator type', and this is repeated until you want the words banned from use. The story has a good heart, but what encases it is so stiff that even a group dance number isn't enough to get the cockles properly warmed.

Watching Damsels In Distress is like sitting in a chair and being prodded by the director until you notice how clever everything is. Which really isn't very clever at all.

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