Movie Review: “Damsel”

   In general, I am always at least a little interested when an original fantasy film is shown to the public. Win, lose, or draw, I think it is important to the movie ecosystem that film studios are encouraged to release movies beyond the established franchises.

   Whether this is a win, lose, or draw, won’t necessarily be answered by a review on Nickelbib, of course. Ultimately, that comes down to box office the amount of people who decided to stream the film. As a bit of a nerd when it comes to statistics and admittedly rather drab information like that, I am always a little saddened by how blurry these kinds of things are to measure. Not only can I not tell you how much this film costs (certain websites claim $60 million, and I think that sounds about right for this kind of project), but I can’t tell you whether it is a success or failure with any large amount of confidence. I know the film logged 35.3 million views in its first three days, but, honestly, it is hard to tell what that even means, per se. Ultimately, if you’re Netflix, you want people to (a) watch your content and (b) enjoy your content, and thus, continue watching your content (and continue with their subscription to you). Thus, factors I am not privy to, like how many people “liked” the film and whether it helped satiate or gain new subscribers, will keep me from offering much insight. It is interesting times we are in (depending on your definition of what’s interesting. think it’s interesting at least). At any rate, the film received mixed reviews from critics and it doesn’t appear like general audiences hated it.

Like many of you, I was introduced to the actor Millie Bobby Brown through the science fiction horror series Stranger Things, and I have been mostly charmed and impressed by her work in that series, and, in general, across the board (I also thought she was alright enough in Enola Holmes and Godzilla: King of the Monsters). Thus, I knew Damsel at least had her going for it, if nothing else. Of course, it isn’t at all uncommon for an actor to be impressive in one environment and not be able to translate that talent in a new project of a different flavor. It is especially common for there to be growing pains once a popular series ends, or when a young actor tries to step out of their territory and do something new. Frankly put, in order to improve, or to discover what you particularly shine at, one must be first willing to step out of their comfort zone to find it. It just so happens that when you are already a famous actor, you don’t always do it on a lower scale, leading to a kind of trial by fire demonstration.

Kristen Stewart is an example of this. I consider Kristen Stewart to be a talented actor, but I would argue that most still gauge her range by what was demonstrated in the Twilight series, or what she did in blockbuster misfires like Snow White and the Huntsman, when it is the quieter, more intimate films like The Clouds of Sils Marie or Camp X-Ray where I believe she operates at her best. 

I think that was the worry I had heading into this new film Damsel. That it will be an example of the awkward growing pains for an actor. Then again though, Kristen Stewart and Millie Bobby Brown are two very different actors. The quieter, more subdued Kristen Stewart may have felt a little off as an action heroine in The Huntsman movie, but Brown has a more outward, conventional charisma that might lead itself to a film like this. Her portrayal in the fellow Netflix film Enola Holmes attests to this fact. 

The concept is fairly unique. Basically, the idea is that Millie’s character is this lowly peasant-type and she is selected to be chosen to be married off to the Prince of a royal family. So, it feels like a page out of a storybook romance. What throws the concept on its head, however, is that all is not what it seems to be with this family. Instead of being swept off her feet and taken to a life of luxury and happiness, she is swept off her feet and chucked into a hole where a dragon awaits its supper. Basically, this family has been cursed and must offer one of its own in a ritualistic sacrifice, but, to circumvent this, they pull a fast one by marrying one of their own off to a peasant and sacrificing them instead. Pretty neat idea, I think.

The opening scene and the trailers themselves do create this ‘girl power’ vibe, which, there is nothing inherently wrong with. There is nothing wrong with a film being empowering or flipping a concept on its head, or tackling stereotypes and tropes in a meaningful way, but it is when a film feels like it is doing it in organically or doing a little too much patting itself on the back that it starts to grate on peoples’ nerves. That happens a couple of times with this film. The presentation is also a little thematically dissonant. This isn’t a very dark fantasy like Game of Thrones. This isn’t a children’s fantasy either, nor is it as careful with its consistency as something like The Lord of the Rings, for example. Imagine if Bilbo stepped by two Elvish women as they were walking, overhearing them, and they shrugged and said it was “Just girl talk!” 

The dialogue can feel a little tacky and self-righteous, and the whole film has this plastic, manufactured vibe to it that lacquers the whole film – right down to its special-effects and conflict resolution. 

On the bright side, Millie Bobby Brown does fairly well in it. Instead of feeling like she is a round peg forcing its way through a square hole, she feels right for it, but, maybe, perhaps, the film is at odds with itself.

There are some ideas I particularly like about it. I like the premise in-general, but I like some of the little details that are incorporated. Millie’s character Elodie desperately fights for her survival, one of her main resources is the etchings and remnants of all the women who were sacrificed before her. This includes a makeshift map that she uses to navigate the caves and figure out what is safe and what isn’t.

The concept, how it is presented, requires some suspension of disbelief. The dragon demands a sacrifice, but I am not entirely certain on what qualifies as a sacrifice. Does the dragon have to kill the daughter? If so, what would happen if the daughter hit their head and died when they were thrown into the cave? Take my word for it – it’s a mighty drop and absolutely would kill off more people on the way down than not. Or, what if they decided they didn’t want to take their chances with the dragon and committed suicide someplace that was out of the dragon’s line of vision? Conversely, if they don’t have to be killed by the dragon, who’s to stop the family from simply waiting until a family member dies naturally and chucking them in the hole? Grave robbing, even? 

I could have imagined this as a more understated, subdued dark fantasy film, lower-budget, as well. Think if someone took elements of The Black Phone and the character speaking with the ghosts of past sacrifices, and mixed it in with, say, A Quiet Place, with Elodie having to quietly, discreetly make her way to freedom.

Unfortunately, while I can imagine, that isn’t what this film is. Instead, it is a rather basic, paint-by-the-numbers fantasy film, fresh off the assembly line. It isn’t offensively bad, and I don’t even recommend you avoid it. Rather, it is a film I met with shrugged shoulders – if you see it, fine, if you don’t, fine. Good idea though. Missed opportunity.

Rating: – 2.0 out of 5.0