Violet, Lily, Rose and Heather’s philosophical approach to life, their interactions with each other and the boys on campus resemble none of the recent, crude romantic comedies. Sex is incidental, not ignored, but not the obsessive center, for the four women care more about shaping and saving the world. They work at the campus Suicide Prevention Center where they espouse cleanliness and tap dancing as the cure. Violet says she wants to change the course of human history by starting a new dance craze, what turns out to be the Sambola.
Not that the damsels in Damsels in Distress ever seem truly distressed. When newcomer Lily criticizes Violet’s arrogance, Violet welcomes the observation and thanks Lily who is already apologizing. Boyfriend troubles arise but are handled calmly, with Violet reiterating that smooth operators must be shunned in favor of the mediocre young man who hasn’t realized his potential, if he has any. One who may not is Thor who desperately wants to learn colors, missing that bit of knowledge because he skipped kindergarten
Some very good jokes pepper the film, while some fall flat in this uneven pastiche of Seven Oaks life. It includes the daily newspaper, the Complainer, and Stillman’s avowed intent to show, as Rose says, “Vulgarity is, in essence, blasphemous.” Yes, it’s that kind of film, smug at times but also refreshingly idiosyncratic as it strains toward propriety.
Shot on Staten Island to take advantage of the solid Greek architecture at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, the yearning for idyllic university life surrenders to fake identities, Violet in “a tailspin,” and bad odors. The formerly all-male school still sports fraternities, though these have Roman instead of Greek letters. I must confess to a real affection for Stillman’s m.o. though I’m not quite sure how seriously to take him in Damsels in Distress. At a Landmark Theatre.