Susan Granger’s review of “Damsels in Distress” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Independent writer/director Whit Stillman made an auspicious debut a couple of decades ago with “Metropolitan”(1990) and “Barcelona” (1994), revolving around the articulate, preppie world of what his characters call the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” but he hasn’t made a movie since “The Last Days of Disco” (1998). Now he’s back with this caustic, episodic comedy, another throwback to the rarefied, sophisticated, dance-centric world in which his mind dwells.
Set at (fictional) Seven Oaks College, located somewhere in the Northeast, it revolves around a clique of three well-bred co-eds who have perfected vacuous snobbery into a fine art. Scoping out the newbies at orientation, Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) choose lovely Lily (Analeigh Tipson), a transfer student, and offer sincere points on self-improvement while inviting her to join them as condescending do-gooders on campus.
In addition to helping her chums dodge unsavory romantic involvements with boorish, unworthy, doofus suitors, like Charlie (Adam Bordy), Xavier (Hugo Becker) Frank (Ryan Metcalf) and Thor (Billy Magnussen), the tight-knit clique’s ringleader, Violet Wister, is also determined to rescue severely depressed students by offering not only coffee, doughnuts and counsel but also tap dance therapy at the Suicide Prevention Center that she’s established. Violet’s greatest ambition – and what she considers will be her benevolent gift to society – is introducing a new international dance craze called the Sambola. And it’s no coincidence that these delicate damsels are named after flowers, since another part of their mission is to introduce bodily hygiene into the population of a disreputable male dormitory by distributing fragrant soap.
Radiating pretentious self-confidence, wide-eyed Greta Gerwig embodies the observant, judgmental visionary, spouting vaguely intellectualized clichés while maintaining her vacuous equilibrium as petty conflicts erupt around her.
Certainly Whit Stillman knows the rarefied world of the privileged classes well, since his godfather was eminent sociologist Digby Baltzell, who first coined the term ‘WASP’ to denote White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
On the Grange Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Damsels in Distress” is a stylized, slightly surreal 6, perhaps overdosing with flimsy whimsy.