Arch and precious but also pleasantly quirky and oddly charming, Whit Stillman’s first movie in fourteen years is certainly one of the least formulaic college pictures you’ll ever see. “Damsels in Distress” expresses his idiosyncratic sensibility in a way that should delight fans of “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco,” while probably irritating others.
The script is set at Seven Oaks, an Ivy League campus that’s recently gone co-ed. Newcomer Lily (Analeigh Tipton) quickly falls in with Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie Maclemore), a trio of roommates who have dedicated themselves to worthwhile activities. One is to run a suicide-prevention clinic based on free doughnuts and therapeutic tap-dance. The other is to do battle with the malodorous males on campus by teaching them cleanliness and hygiene.
The leader of this little pack is Violet, who continues her good work by dating Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a member of one of the school’s Roman fraternities, in accordance with her dictum that instead of pining over somebody cooler than you, one should always date an inferior you can improve. Unfortunately, Priss (Caitlin Fitzgerald), one of the suicidal students she helps, repays her by stealing Frank. That sends Violet into an emotional tailspin (please don’t say ”depression”) from which she springs back through the aroma of a soap she finds in the cheap motel where she crashes, and then makes a linchpin of her campus drive to help the men.
As if this weren’t enough, Stillman’s script adds romance in the form of Charlie (Adam Brody), a smooth operator who first approaches Lily but then links up with Violet, and Xavier (Hugo Becker), a silken foreign grad student who stakes a claim on Lily—and informs her that he’s a Cathar with unusual sexual practices mandated by his faith. And there’s another frat boy, Thor (Billy Magnussen), who’s sweet-natured but so dim that he strains to learn the difference between the primary colors, as well as a campus newspaper editor who’s determined to closedown the Roman frats. And did I mention that one of Violet’s goals—in line with her tap therapy—is to create an international dance craze, which leads to a literally instructional finale for a routine called the Sambola!
All this might seem more than a trifle twee—any campus movie that has both references to the Cathars and a toga party is certainly an oddity. But while “Damsels in Distress” is certainly not your typical college comedy, it’s not mean-spirited. Violet and her cohorts may be smug and judgmental, but they’re not cruel, acting out of a misplaced sense of superiority rather than nastiness. And though the characters are peculiar, and speak in an affected turns of phrase, they retain a hint of reality even at their most cartoonish.
What matters in the final analysis is that the movie is sophisticated fluff whose wit carries more sympathy than edginess—and it’s oddball fun. Stillman has an eye for absurdist situations and an ear for goofily deadpan dialogue, and he indulges them to the hilt here. He also chooses his casts wisely, and though Gerwig is the standout among the ensemble, all seem attuned to his wavelength. And the technical team is equally on target, with production designer Elizabeth J. Jones, art director Brian Goodwin, costumer Ciera Wells and cinematographer Doug Emmett joining forces to give the picture the sort of synthetic, candy-colored look appropriate to the screenplay.
“Damsels in Distress” isn’t your typical Hollywood rom.com, and viewers accustomed to more ordinary fare will be perplexed by it. But those who have been waiting for Stillman’s return for more than a decade will find that he hasn’t lost his idiosyncratic touch.