Director Whit Stillman is 60 now, and hasn't made a film since 1998's The Last Days of Disco, but his preferred milieu is still the world of privileged young people with the luxury of taking time to figure themselves out. It's a rarefied realm, where vocabulary and self-confidence outstrip experience, and wisdom and adulthood are still to be embraced.
Even were it not so delightful, Damsels in Distress, set at a fictional upper-crust college, would deserve a watch for its dialogue alone. Unlike in most American youth-oriented movies, his characters read, and are proud of it. They've thought about life and drawn some early, if occasionally flawed, conclusions. Quotes from the classics seep into everyday conversations, and current pop-culture references are noticeably absent. No one texts or tweets or lingers on Facebook. No one ponders the plotlines of must-see TV.
Instead, the film's daffy damsels are on a mission to improve the lives of everyone around them. Turning the familiar campus comedy on its ear, Stillman rearranges the pecking order so that frat boys are objects of sympathy and the weirdest girls are so unharassed, they believe themselves queen bees.
At the center of the hive is Violet (the marvelous Greta Gerwig), a philanthropic activist whose greatest dream is to invent the next dance craze. Along with roommates Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Violet runs a suicide-prevention center where she encourages depressed coeds to aim lower in the search for a mate. Because, you know, cool people are overrated, and so much work.
This has always been a theme in Stillman's work, and it's comforting to see he hasn't changed. Following her own advice, Violet dates Frank (a quite astonishing debut from Ryan Metcalf), a lovable dunderhead so dim he can't describe his own eye color. The absurdism of much of the film's humor — one unfortunate lunk (Billy Magnussen) can't identify any colors at all because he skipped kindergarten — may seem unbearably precious when described, but in the hands of the gifted young cast, it all works.
Analeigh Tipton, playing a transfer student co-opted by Violet's group, responds to her new friends' eccentricities with understated dismay, while Adam Brody, as one of her love interests, reveals depths unplumbed when he was a pup on Gilmore Girls and The O.C.
Though the screenplay's whimsy may be too rich for some, Stillman's writing has a singular intelligence that has become an increasingly rare pleasure in the movie theater. As Violet, deluded but never despicable, begins a campaign to banish frat-boy odor from campus, Stillman paves her path with musical numbers — including a lovely sequence set to Hal Ketchum's country-roots ballad Small Town Saturday Night — and arch conversations.
Loony and erudite, blithe and well-meaning, Damsels is a skewed fairy tale whose message, if there is one, is that we can all benefit from a helping hand. Even if we don't know the color of our own eyes. (Recommended)