Judging from the popularity of Michelle Obama’s J Crew cardigans, ballet shoes and dirndl skirts, “prep,” as style and visual conceit, might have made a minor comeback in the last few years. But it’s a pale shadow of that which some of us actually lived and breathed, growing up in places like Berkshire, Westchester or Fairfield counties. That is not to imply that earlier versions of prep, be they found in the novels of William Saroyan or John Cheever, or lovingly lampooned in The Preppy Handbook, were somehow holier than that which we find in today’s mall, but that back then, it almost wasn’t an affectation, just how one dressed and lived.
Whit Stillman—remember him?—has a special affinity for simultaneously celebrating prep culture while satirizing its reliance on an old way of life amid fast-paced cultural and societal changes. The young people in his Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco lead fairly button-down existences, punctuated by the occasional opportunity to do black tie or a night slumming at a tawdry club. It’s been more than a decade since Stillman drew our attention to his favored milieu; let’s just say time has not been good to the filmmaker’s vision. Damsels in Distress is a throwback to Stillman’s earlier movies, complete with look-alike cast members, notably the bland, stiff Greta Gerwig stepping into Chloe Sevigny’s sensible shoes. Set at Seven Oaks, a seemingly faded liberal arts college, Damsels follows the attempts by Gerwig’s Violet and her friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) to instill a sort of order on the lives of less hygienic classmates. (Think of Gone With the Wind’s Association for the Beautification of the Graves of the Glorious Dead.) They take in new girl Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who soon sees through the trio’s artifice.
Damsels in Distress lurches forward at a positively glacial pace, with awkward moments like when Lily, admittedly from a slightly lower social strata than her new friends, has no clue what an artichoke is, or when Violet claims a national need for new dances. These characters are nothing short of stupid, but they’re not even funny stupid, like somebody out of Old School or Horrible Bosses. Their devotion to pretty fragrances and fresh laundry is insipidly played out, leaving us to wonder what exactly Stillman was attempting to say. The movie is derivative of much better movies, like Clueless and, of course, Heathers, and its inability to rise at least partway to the occasion, even by desperately throwing in a ludicrous dance scene to conclude the exercise, makes one wish that Stillman would move on to more interesting pastures for his next cinematic foray.