Here’s the next batch of Damsels in Distress reviews, although it seems like this bunch’s average score would be lower than in previous postings.
Thomas Hibbs’s (dean of the Honors College at Baylor University) review at National Review Online is a little more thoughtful than most, although much of it consists of (amusing) quotes from the film.
The serious point behind the humor is not of course that we ought to take Violet’s prescriptions as normative. Indeed, as is the case in other Stillman films, the reformers and theorists end up in trouble. Their schemes inevitably run afoul of the complexities of the real world. In the press notes for the film, Stillman comments, “It’s hard not to admire the idealists who, not content with the existent world, seek to invent new ones. But the confidence and mastery these future-architects embody often disguise a fragile persona that’s frail, inadaptive, and, finally, easily shattered.” That’s precisely what happens to Violet in Damsels.
At the San Diego City College’s City Times, Tom Andrew is, let’s say, underwhelmed:
The film tries to be comically absurd as most Bill Murray, Farrelly Brothers and some Cohen Brothers films are, but it doesn’t even come close to these films. … Damsels, should not be seen in the theater. In fact, it shouldn’t be seen at all, unless you are prepared to lose 99 minutes of your life and know you’ll never get those minutes back.
I’m not sure that sentence even makes sense. Hans Morgenstern at Independent Ethos is a little more positive and thoughtful but also, ultimately, less than enthusiastic:
Throughout the film, Lily asks the questions but just floats along with it, accepting Violet’s convoluted misinformation for the sake of the mental stability of those surrounding them. It sets Lily up to make a mistake that later proves degrading to herself after Xavier takes advantage of Lily’s own dumbing-down in the bedroom. This is no way for anyone to find education and grow up, and in the end no one does. There lies the inherent problem of the movie: If conflicts are so easily resolved by humoring ignorance, why should we care about these people? It’s funny for a bit, but becomes grating, tiresome and plain pathetic fast.
At Cine Vue, Patrick Gamble gives the movie 4 out of 5 and, while he has reservations, is broadly upbeat:
Gerwig – already perceived as the unofficial queen of indie filmmaking – is, as to be expected, superb. Fuelled by the type of script any actor would love to have presented to them, she positively revels in the pretentious and arrogant characteristics of Violet, expelling an assured egotistical demeanour that recalls Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) – only far more complex and endearing.
In Baltimore’s City Paper, Bret McCabe has little bad to say:
The plot is fairly inconsequential, as Damsels’ version of undergraduate life is an imaginary utopia. Stillman uses it more as the backdrop for daydreaming young people starting to transition into the reality of adulthood, and he zeroes in on the comic conflicts of imagination colliding with actuality. College becomes that place where who people wish they were gets whittled into an understanding of who they are, and Stillman has the mature restraint not to do it with a serrated cynical blade. He instead mines the comedy of precocious seriousness, and the results are moments of the wonderfully pointless.
Next, Aaron Mesh, a long-term Stillman fan, is entirely positive at Williamette Week:
The movie is so madcap and mannered, and Gerwig’s performance so perfectly balanced on the edge of mania, that people might read it as a satire. But anybody who’s spent time in the cloistered world of a small, hidebound liberal arts school will recognize it as only a slight exaggeration, even down to the creepy French guy who says he prefers anal sex for religious reasons. Stillman is having a laugh at this bizarro world—where the goody two-shoes are heroes, counterculture activists are conceited scoundrels, and frat boys are the hapless, filthy ditwits stuck in between—but he’s also advocating for an ideal of feminine civilization.
Tom Grater at Impact, the University of Nottingham’s (UK) magazine is utterly perplexed. Indeed, it sounds like he’s been watching a different film to most critics, even those who were ambivalent:
The production is thoroughly and perplexingly amateurish; irrelevant shots of the sky are interspersed amongst numerous oddities: loses of focus, sound problems, an over-reliance on a soft focus filter that only furthers the tweeness of it all.
In fact, I’m struggling to unearth any redeeming features. It never moves at a consistent pace, dropping characters from the limelight and then picking them back up in the blink of an eye. It never really has a point either, tangentially exploring one idea and then jettisoning it for something else. It’s frustrating, pretentious and ultimately difficult to watch. Real horror show.
Not really a Stillman fan, I’m guessing. At The Quad, Vijayta Narang had mixed views:
While it does have its moments of cinematic harmony, the film is driven by snappy dialogue as opposed to visuals. The dialogue is a little too dry at times, but effectively delivered. Stillman can be commended on having created a set of characters that are both caricatures and are all flawed in very believable ways.
Let’s hope the next batch of reviews are more consistently positive.