Set on the campus of a former women’s college now overrun with lunkhead Roman-frat boys, Whit Stillman’s comeback comedy Damsels in Distress is wobbly and borderline twee, but it deepens as it goes along and becomes rich. The initial conceit is a beaut: to upend Heathers and Mean Girls by turning the central trio of insouciant alpha-hotties into do-gooders who march into dorms, pull students off their suicidal ledges, and put them in tap shoes to sing and dance. (The sign on their headquarters reads SUICIDE PREVENTION CENTER, but the word PREVENTION keeps falling off.) Each of these philosopher-flibbertigibbets bears the name of a flower: Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and their laser-willed leader, Violet (Greta Gerwig), who has formulated a design for living. She counsels incoming student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) that falling in love with handsome and intelligent boys is a sure path to suicide. By dating Frank (Ryan Metcalf), who is neither good-looking nor smart, Violet is both making a difference in his life and protecting herself from heartbreak. Or so she believes—until he dumps her for a girl she “rescued” after a bad breakup.
Stillman has hold of one of the best of all high-comedy themes: what Henry James, writing about Ibsen (not, admittedly, a laugh riot), called “the individual caught in the fact.” Stillman’s youngish characters love theories—embracing old ones, constructing new ones, always on the lookout for a way to frame experience and protect themselves from getting emotionally blindsided. They change their names and accents. They pretend to be people they aren’t. Inevitably, they are hurt, exposed, their theories exploded, but Stillman is the most charitable of satirists. Instead of delivering the killing blow, he allows these poseurs to pick themselves up and find a better pose—chattering all the while, of course.
The chatter in Damsels in Distress is zanier, more absurdist, than in Stillman’s pitch-perfect Metropolitan and Barcelona, and a lot of the jokes go thud. He’s not in his element with Heathers-style camp. Gerwig and Violet are a strange match. The actress doesn’t run her words together—she sounds each out individually, as if plucking it from the ether, her dazed, open-mouthed delivery recalling Alyson Hannigan’s nerdy-sexy Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her spaciness sounds odd sped up. But Violet, in her prim A-line frocks, is a still a great original, a character who loves to issue orders and loves, unexpectedly, to be challenged, at one point thanking Lily for chastising her. You can’t predict what will pop out next. “I love clichéd and hackneyed expressions of every kind,” she announces, convinced they’re not a mark of lazy thinking but the accumulated wisdom of the ages. And when Rose in her clipped British tones denounces as an operator a slickster (Adam Brody) who sends Lily and her friends a round of drinks, Violet counters: “I’ll grant you that this was a tactic or even a ruse, but without that, how would our species survive?” Her logic is impeccable.
After a lot of hems and haws, Lily takes up with a Frenchman (Hugo Becker) who—in between explaining the unique sexual codes of his religion—shows her Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses. This is Stillman’s way of prepping you for the New Wave antics to come, among them a full-blown song-and-dance number that recalls Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress. The cast is game for anything. As the most grounded character, Tipton, of America’s Next Top Model, has an interesting, pushed-out face that survives cinematographer Doug Emmett’s overbright side lighting, and MacLemore’s Heather is a perky cutie who gives her scenes a lift. Characters are easier to love when the director loves them more. Consider Thor, Frank’s dumb friend. How dumb is he? So dumb he doesn’t know colors. Stillman gets a lot of comic mileage out of Thor’s childish incomprehension—until, late in the film, Heather discovers that Thor’s overambitious parents forced him to skip nursery school and jump right into kindergarten. He missed that part of his childhood. So it’s an absurdist joke and a metaphor for a stunted way of seeing. And then it’s something more. Thor, with Heather’s help, learns the colors and wakes up to the world. It’s true magic when jokes on a character’s dumbness end up flowering.