Fourteen years is far too long a hiatus to have to wait for a new film from a writer-director of Whit Stillman's sharp wit and sizable endowments. "Damsels in Distress," his unrelated but tonally congruent follow-up to 1998's "The Last Days of Disco," is as impeccably scribed as any movie likely to come out in 2012, the dialogue such a bounty of sumptuous intelligence, arch banter, and sneakily sly asides that to just close your eyes and listen to the near-poetry in motion might be enough. Beyond its sparkling dialogue and yet another irresistible turn from the incomparable Greta Gerwig (2011's "Arthur
"), it's a breezy college comedy that one wishes grew to have more emotional depth than it does. With a slack narrative and unforced plotting, Stillman's goals prefer the intimate to the epic, each scene a new snapshot into the everyday lives of fascinating people who are both true originals and imminently watchable. Does the whole of "Damsels in Distress" mean much in the long run? Probably not. But it sure is a pleasure while it lasts.
A less-than-desirable first year of higher education has sent Lily (Analeigh Tipton) to seek out someplace else, someplace better, and where she has ended up as an incoming sophomore is Seven Oaks University, a picturesque private campus in Upstate New York. Upon arrival, she is promptly swept up by a trio of free-thinking gals with a penchant for helping others and making a differenceeven if that difference is inventing a new dance craze. Violet (Greta Gerwig) is the unspoken leader, mildly conceited but mostly well-meaning, with a weakness for the less handsome form of frat boys. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is the cynicaland Britishone, doubting the actions of any creature of the opposite sex she passingly encounters. Finally, Heather (Carrie MacLemore) comes up the rear, an agreeable soul who has found her true calling by being a part of something. Lily promptly enters their foldshe doesn't have any other friendsbut as the school year goes on and the women face the usual sorts of triumphs and distresses (read: boys), she increasingly begins to realize she'd rather stand on her own than be stuck beneath Violet's shadow.
"Damsels in Distress" isn't much more than a low-key slice-of-life accented by shrewd farcical flourishes, but when a film's actors are this good, and their delivery of such one-of-a-kind writing is this on-target, there isn't much room for complaint. The characters are far from the usual archetypes one usually sees in college-set picturesnone of them can be easily described in three wordsand the viewer's attempts to figure them out along the way is a welcome change. Violet is either the queen bee of the group or just the one that stands out because she's the tallest. She has her hand in many potsshe volunteers at the campus' suicide prevention center, contributes to the university's newspaper The Daily Complainer
, and targets the frat house with the most socially awkward guys because she finds them far more interesting than suave, chiseled womanizers. Violet's a do-gooder, but her high sense of self also leaves her the most unexpectedly vulnerable. She takes it in stride when Lily frankly comments that she's "conceited and arrogant""Sometimes one needs to have a friend who puts one in one's place," Violet acknowledgesbut is so devastated when sort-of boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) starts seeing Priss (Caitlin Fitzgerald), a girl they've saved from suicidal thoughts, that she runs away and checks into a motel to sort things out on her own. As put-together as she outwardly presents herself, she's just as unsure and in need of guidance as any of her classmates.
For her part, the sardonic Rose can't quite let go of her trust issues with men, accusing them everywhere she goes to be "playboy or operator types." By the third or fourth times she says it, it has not only become a priceless on-going joke, but the kind of quote-worthy line that deserves to be promoted into the pop-cultural consciousness. Heather, perhaps the least developed of the group, nonetheless becomes deeply involved in boyfriend Thor's (Billy Magnussen) intellectual crisis when he admits that he never learned his colors. By contrast, Lily hasn't the delusions of grandeur as her compatriots, a more level-headed everygal with her eyes first on Xavier (Hugo Becker), who unfortunately already has a girlfriend, and then on the friendly but enigmatic Charlie Walker (Adam Brody), who may not be exactly who he says he is. Throughout the school year, Lily doesn't come to dislike Violetas mentioned, she's not a bad personbut she does realize she doesn't need her, either. Violet captures the spotlight, while Lily doesn't need such things in order to be happy or feel accepted. In lieu of a big showdown or falling-out, Violet is mature and nonchalant about Lily's decision to step away from her, and in return Lily still agrees to help Violet as she puts the finishing touches on a new dance she's just invented called the "sambola." In Stillman's world, women do not need to be catty to each other. They're too smart and have too many other issues on their mind to waste the energy.
"Damsels in Distress" falls into one less-than-desirable trap based around its school settingthere is a drought of classroom scenes (there might be one or two in total), or anything at all in relation to studying for exams, writing papers or working on projectsand it's a rare miscalculation on writer-director Whit Stillman's part. In my college experience, these very things took up a major portion of time, but for the film's characters it's as if they're just living there without having bothered to enroll. The rest of "Damsels in Distress" is a veritable treat, as savory and quirky as it is endearingly confectionary. Greta Gerwig steals the screen as Violet, remarkably sympathetic beneath her headstrong persona, while Analeigh Tipton (2011's "Crazy, Stupid, Love.
") more than holds her own as the newcomer of the gang Lily, making a trio a temporary quartet as she finds her own place in the hierarchy of young adulthood. The complicated ins and outs of the protagonists' relationships rarely, if ever, find their way into melodrama; instead, they develop or disintegrate with the naturalistic fanfare of real life. It's a breath of fresh air, as the saying goes, only with a far superior vocabulary.