Whit Stillman has been away from movies for so long you may not even remember he was gone. But thanks to “Damsels in Distress,” you’ll notice he’s back.
Stillman built a devoted indie following in the ‘90s with the crackling dialogue and sophisticated wit of his “yuppie trilogy”: 1990’s “Metropolitan” (Oscar nominated for best original screenplay), 1994’s “Barcelona” and 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco.” These “comedies of manners” explored the romantic neuroses of WASPy friends from solid socioeconomic backgrounds.
He hasn’t flipped the script too much for “Damsels,” but the college-set comedy also takes cues from the likes of “Mean Girls,” “Clueless” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House” -- in distinctly Stillman-ian fashion.
Our guide to the familiar yet strange world of Seven Oaks University is transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton, following her excellent debut in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” with an even sharper performance) who is immediately adopted by Queen Bee Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her loyal friends proper English Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and cheerfully dim Heather (Carrie MacLemore).
“Mean Girls” aficionados could think of them as Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert and Amanda Seyfried several years later, but in this case the Queen Bee is the real heroine. Violet’s mission is to make Seven Oaks a happier, better smelling, more refined institution. She heads up volunteer duties at the Suicide Prevention Club, spars with the sanctimonious editor of the school paper The Daily Complainer, advocates for the therapeutic value of tap dancing and aspires to one day launch an international dance craze.
Violet is not your typical leading lady. With her particular world view and earnestly amusing dialogue, she’s a unique comedic creation expertly brought to life by Gerwig. The rapidly ascending actress functions as both the film’s standout performer and its team leader, bringing out the best in the performers around her. Echikunwoke and MacLemore are second bananas who make vivid impressions of their own, each nailing a specific set of character traits and fitting in perfectly to the oddball enterprise.
Then there’s their men. Violet especially has an affinity for the guys of the "Roman Letter" club DU, primarily represented by not-so-bright buddies Frank (Ryan Metcalf) and Thor (Billy Magnussen). While Lily is torn between smooth player Charlie (Adam Brody) and seductive European Xavier (Hugo Becker). They are the distress, not the salvation, for Stillman’s damsels. But even these shady, imbecilic guys prove lovable in their own ways.
The plot of “Damsels in Distress” doesn’t really build in any conventional sense, and a good amount of the action is utterly baffling, but it’s all so consistently amusing and played with complete conviction by the actors that the film somehow works -- all the way through its buoyant closing dance numbers.
I have a hunch “Damsels” is the sort of film that seems enjoyable but slight on a first viewing, then ages surprisingly well over time. You know the kind: Quotes and characters linger in your memory long after you’ve seen it. You can’t pass up an opportunity to drop in on it during a cable rerun. And, in this case, Stillman has made an entertainment with enough depth to hold up over repeated viewings.
"Damsels in Distress" opens in limited release April 6.