Damsel | Review by: Benjamin Garrett

 Netflix aims to flip the damsel in distress trope on its head with their latest YA fantasy film, but fails to escape the genre conventions it’s trying to defy. The most distressing thing about Damsel is how completely run-of-the-mill it is. Not terrible. Not good. Just a ho-hum, albeit nice looking adventure without one original bone in its body. 

This film’s intentions are sound, spinning an empowering, female led fantasy tale, that doesn’t depend on a man saving the day or a forced romantic angle. To some degree, it’s successful, but mostly falls flat (there’s actually a lot of falling in this movie, but more on that later). I appreciated how self reliant and strong Elodie (Millie Bobby Brown) is, but despite being a formidable heroine, the story around her is unfortunately really dull. I can look past the predictable and played out twists, but the thin writing really hinders everything the movie does right. Minimalism is one thing, but this is underbaked. 

A lot of it comes down to character work that sounds interesting on paper, but isn’t given any depth beyond that. It feels like this film wants to do and say so much more, but doesn’t put in the necessary effort to work within the context of the story. For example, a large chunk of the plot is Brown trying to navigate and escape a cave. It’s established early on that she’s skilled in drawing and solving mazes, but it never feels like she’s much better at finding a way out than an average person would be.  Even her frequent brushes with death often rely on dumb luck rather than skill. Whether it’s plummeting several stories and miraculously surviving (this happens more than once), or being seconds away from getting scorched by dragon fire, only for something to draw its attention away at the last moment. None of it does anything to develop or strengthen her as a character.

It’s a shame, because from a production standpoint, the movie does a fair amount that works well. Aside from the occasional bit of ugly green screen and Millie wearing a full face of pageant level makeup, everything looks pretty good. The visual effects won’t blow your mind, but considering this was made against a modest budget of roughly 60 million, I think it looks good - especially when you look at some of the 2-3 hundred million dollar visual duds we’ve gotten recently. The set design gets some points too, especially the cavernous dragon’s lair deep beneath the mountain.  

The performances range in quality, although I wouldn’t say any are bad. Brown spends more time grunting and crying out in pain than she does delivering dialogue, but since she’s stuck in a cave alone for the majority of the movie, it makes sense. Robin Wright and Angela Bassett are severely underused, and apart from the draw of their names attached to the project, I can’t think of a good reason why these high profile actresses were diminished to such small roles. The standout here is Shohreh Aghdashloo, with an outstanding vocal performance as the dragon. Her silky yet raspy voice is menacing and mysterious, as the dragon slithers around the shadows of her lair. 

Damsel occasionally shows hints of a better movie, but doesn’t have enough narrative heft to be anything more than generic popcorn filler. Given the solid visuals and set design, it’s frustrating to imagine what another pass at the script might have given us.


Review by: Benjamin Garrett

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