Whit Stillman’s much-anticipated Damsels in Distress — his first movie since 1998’s Last Days of Disco, and only his fourth after Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994) — arrives with the writer/director’s singular voice intact.
Damsels is set on a campus of higher learning dubbed Seven Oaks U. that we’re told is “the last of the select seven to go coed” and centers itself on a group of preppy sorority girls (a stellar Greta Gerwig, as well as Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Analiegh Tipton) who pontificate about social mores in a vernacular that’s part Woody Allen, part self-help textbook and all deadpan hilarity. Gerwig’s Violet is the girls’ ringleader, a verbally articulate but emotionally vague character that represents what there is of the movie’s narrative arc — she gets dumped by her frat-guy boyfriend (Ryan Metcalf), falls into a depression and begins to recover after taking up with an enlightened fellow (Adam Brody) who helps her invent a new dance craze called the Sambola.
Stillman creates a place that seems hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world — cinematographer Doug Emmett notably bathes the proceedings in unnaturally bright light — a place that posits the major problem in contemporary social life as “the tendency to always seek someone cooler than yourself” without a whiff of irony. And while it doesn’t stray far from its unabashedly urbane director’s well-established themes and interests, Damsels does branch off into unexpected areas, including a few musical interludes that are so perplexingly odd as to border on camp.
Gerwig is the saving grace — the Mumblecore-darling-turned-semi-mainstream secret weapon delivers her many humorous monologues with an authenticity and conviction the rest of the Damels sometimes lacks. Grade: B-
MARLEY opens May 4 at Esquire Theatre.