Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress is a wonderfully off-beat comedy about a student, Violet (Greta Gerwig), who seeks to transform life at her college. With friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) & Heather (Carrie MacLemore) she takes under wing seemingly nice transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) who soon attracts the attentions of both “playboy-operator” Charlie (Adam Brody) & dreamboat grad student Xavier (Hugo Becker) -- but it’s Violet who will end up crushed.
Writer-director Whit Stillman let more than a decade lapse between 1998's Last Days of Disco and 2012's Damsels in Distress. Happily, the Whit and wisdom (and slightly pixilated screwball style) did not diminish one iota during Stillman's layoff: Damsels is literate and daffy in equal measure. It's tempting to describe the movie's subject as Clueless-in-college, as it features a group of young women who share a very specific set of theories and rules about behavior between the sexes. In particular, Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her sidekicks Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) descend upon Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a newcomer at a tony Ivy League (or Ivy League-ish) university, with a mind toward "helping" the gawky--but by no means helpless, really--coed. Violet is full of curious ideas about men, which she delivers with full confidence, even though her theories don't play all that well in reality. Gerwig (from Greenberg and many indie titles) makes a meal of this role, her wide-eyed sincerity and deadpan drawl perfectly suited to Stillman's cheerfully stylized dialogue. In fact, the entire film takes place inside a sun-washed cocoon even more tightly knit than Stillman's previous movies; there's little hint of the real world here, just a comedy of manners closer to the universe of Oscar Wilde and Preston Sturges than the place you went to college. And yet some truths come along, which gives a tang to the wackiness. And now, everybody do the international dance craze known as the Sambola! --Robert Horton