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Damsels in Distress

Carrie MacLemore, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Greta Gerwig in "Damsels in Distress"

Women on the Verge

Damsels in Distress

At the campus Suicide Prevention Center (where the part of the sign with the middle word sometimes goes missing), they hand out doughnuts under a cheery banner that says, “Come On, It’s Not That Bad!”

They believe in helping their classmates at Seven Oaks College better themselves, even if exposure to some of them causes bouts of Nasal Shock Syndrome, unknown before the college went coed.

They don’t seem to realize that they are all named after flowers: Violet, Rose, Heather. When they come across a new girl named Lily, nothing will do but that she join them, which is as efficient a way as you could want to get this daffy group to reveal themselves to an audience that is unlikely to see anything remotely like them in a movie theater this year.

Damsels in Distress opens in theaters locally the same week as the first of the summer’s anticipated blockbuster special effects behemoths (The Avengers, whose trailer made my eyes hurt). With luck it will function the same way that Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris did last summer, as a droll, modestly literate alternative to the digital mayhem taking over the multiplexes for the season.

This is the first film in 13 years from writer-director Whit Stillman, whose three films about, in his phrase, the “urban haute bourgeoisie” put him in a class with indie writer-directors like Hal Hartley and Wes Anderson in the early 1990s. I can’t say I was a huge fan of Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, but he staked out territory no one else was bothering with: children of the upper crust who were neither damaged (a la Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis) nor unpalatably smug in their advantages (the standard for rich kids in movies).

It helped that Stillman was making films about people he knew. Everything you need to know about him is encapsulated in this fun fact: His godfather is E. Digby Baltzell, who gave the world the acronym WASP. And even if he hadn’t, simply having a godfather named E. Digby Baltzell speaks volumes.

Damsels in Distress is much less specific. The fictional college where it is set has the otherworldliness that makes us assume it is of the Ivy League, though perhaps the lower rungs. Aside from a brief snatch of hip-hop-inflected music in a party scene, it could be taking place anytime in the past 50 years. As much as Napoleon Dynamite, it exists in a world of its own, where people speak their own kind of dialogue and reality doesn’t interfere with the movie’s real concerns.

Relatively plotless, Damsels in Distress follows this cohort led by Violet (Greta Gerwig, former mumblecore star and the best thing about last year’s Arthur and Greenberg). Relentlessly positive, she always makes the best of a situation and sees all criticism as constructive, no matter how it was intended.

Violet believes in elevating the standards of those around her, which isn’t hard given that the male population of the school is so distinctly in need of a little elevation. They reside in frat houses with Roman rather than Greek names, and may well be here as a school of last resort.

But what makes this different from some Animal House retread is that Stillman doesn’t treat even his dumbest characters meanly. Look at Thor (Billy Magnussen), who is still struggling to fill those things he never learned when his overachieving parents made him skip kindergarten.

The movie isn’t really about much of anything, other than a certain nostalgia for a time when you were free to remold your identity as much as you wanted until you liked the result, or maybe even remold your surroundings to fit what you are. Few characters here are who they initially appear to be.

But as a compilation of scenes and lines that Stillman may have been harboring for years, it’s endlessly quotable. There’s the class in “Flit Lit,” concentrating on the dandy strain in English literature: Pope, Wilde, Waugh. Or Violet’s salvation from her own depression (she prefers to call it a “tailspin”) by the distinctively uplifting scent of motel room soap. Or her belief in the wisdom of clichés as distillations of wisdom—“a stunning treasure trove of human knowledge.” There is a hilarious suicide attempt, and a joke about sodomy so airily handled that I didn’t realize what it was about until later in the movie. (That may also have to do with the film’s dialogue, which is fast, plentiful, and smart but not always well enunciated.)

It’s the kind of film that needs to end with a dance number, which it does. (Violet also believes that dance crazes are “transformative of human society”; her paper on the topic references “Chubert” Checker.) Internet commentators who don’t like the film complain about its lack of reality. Unreal it may be, but next to the superhero movies we’re about to be bombarded with, give me this any day.

Watch the trailer for Damsels in Distress

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