With Damsels in Distress, his fourth, funniest and most accessible film, writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, Last Days of Disco) shakes off his "acquired taste" label. Instead of cloistered Upper East Side society, 1970s Manhattan dance palaces or picturesque Spain, the setting this time is the present day at a rumpled university campus in Anytown, U.S.A.
At Seven Oaks, a liberal arts college far removed from the Ivy League turf of Stillman's youth, the eternally optimistic Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her two soul sisters (Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore) carry on trying to make everyone's life a little better. At orientation, they pick out a freshman, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), and take her into their circle, filling her in on their personal mission.
Violet is the gang's de facto leader: She's the one who describes parties as a form of "youth outreach" where they can make an appearance, dance with some boys and bring a little joy into their lives. She's the one who insists the group staff the school's suicide prevention hot line and is always on the lookout for potential cases of brewing depression.
Violet also thinks the single biggest problem in contemporary life is "the tendency — very widespread — to always seek someone cooler than yourself." Instead, she suggests dating someone inferior and help that person realize his or her potential, which can be rewarding and more reassuring. Violet is dating Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a boy so dumb he doesn't even know he has blue eyes ("I'm not going to go around checking what color my eyes are! Come on!" he says indignantly. "If my eyes were so blue, looking out, wouldn't everything be kind of blue?").
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Frank's frat brother Thor (Billy Magnussen) is even dumber: He doesn't even know how to tell colors apart, but at least he admits it. "What's embarrassing is pretending to know what you don't," Thor declares proudly, proving stupidity can be bliss.
Damsels in Distress ambles about amiably without much of a narrative: Plot has never been Stillman's strong suit, and in this film he seems particularly indifferent to its demands. There are break-ups and affairs, one-night stands and extended flirtations. Adam Brody (The O.C.) plays a grad student who is working on a thesis titled "The Decline of Decadence." Hugo Becker is a French student named Xavier, and the spelling of his name is the subject of a debate among the girls about whether Zorro wrote his name with an X, too.
The performances are all terrific — Stillman gets his actors to latch onto his absurdist vibe, then he gives them wonderfully rich dialogue to play with — but Gerwig is the film's undeniable center. Violet is a curious, baffling, endearing girl: She hates aggression and hostility, is extremely sensitive to B.O., finds life-changing meaning in motel room soap and wants to do something "especially significant" with her life, such as starting a new dance craze, because they always bring people together.
She, like the rest of the characters in the film, isn't quite believable as a person. But Stillman is aiming for a sunny mood, not realism, and he sends the movie off on a note of wonderful, elevating frivolity.
Damsels in Distress is light and frothy by design — it's an inconsequential bauble — but I laughed out loud in nearly every scene, and there are lines in the movie that still make me chuckle. This is the work of a singular voice in American cinema, except this time, everyone can be in on the jokes.