College is a strange, serendipitous time and place: Events, experiences, strangers come swooping into your life like birds of prey and before you know it you're carried off somewhere wholly new. In "Damsels in Distress," writer-director-cinematic dandy Whit Stillman's first feature since "The Last Days of Disco" (1998), all the key females are named after flowers.
At the (fictional) Seven Oaks college student orientation, a transfer student, Lily, is forcibly befriended by a clutch of primly dressed specimens named Violet, Rose and Heather. Ringleader Violet, played by Greta Gerwig, spies a soul in need of assistance, a lump of insecure clay ready for molding. At Seven Oaks, Violet declares, "an atmosphere of male barbarism predominates. But we're going to change that."
In no time Violet introduces Lily to the unruly local male student populace, which is unruly only by Stillman standards. (The conversational level runs somewhat higher than, say, "National Lampoon's Van Wilder.") Violet and company also turn the new kid in town on to the satisfactions of running the campus Suicide Prevention Center and to Violet's most cherished dream: to initiate a worldwide dance craze of her own devising, built around a tune called "The Sambola."
With a title pulling a variation from the lovely 1937 Fred Astaire musical "A Damsel in Distress," Stillman's latest concerns a young woman either adopted by a fabulously odd trio of new pals or indoctrinated into the most twee cult in collegiate history. It's all in your receptivity to Stillman's brittle humor.
In each of Stillman's four films to date, beginning with the swell "Metropolitan" in 1990 and moving on to "Barcelona" four years later, the dialogue bubbles up from a peculiarly nostalgic realm, as if aching for a return to the days when the bon mot meant more than hammer-headed put-down. Whatever his films' locales or time frames, one could be listening to moneyed characters of privilege straight out of Edith Wharton or earnest young strivers -- those slightly outside the bubble of maximum financial ease -- akin to the folks found in Philip Barry's "Holiday." Stillman's scripts wear their plots lightly but invest in felicity of verbal expression seriously, as seriously as the way Megalyn Echikunwoke's stern, snippy Rose judges each new boy in sight as a "rat playboy operator."
Gerwig is a wonderful paradox on screen: a big, strapping blonde who never, ever muscles a scene in her direction, her feather-light touch doing wonders with Stillman's most candied banter, turning it into something like actual human speech. Any time an audience (or many critics) encounter dialogue that sounds "written," you can smell the negative rebound coming a mile off. Most comedies today, and most comedies of every era (even Preston Sturges' era, the exception to which was Preston Sturges), are content to pile up situational contrivances without the verbal wit. It's easier. Stillman is different; his notions of female/male rituals of courtship may be science fiction, but they're a breath of fresh air.
If it's "about" anything, "Damsels in Distress" deals with Violet's triumph over adversities and assumptions largely of her own making. The film treats depression and despair and young love with just enough gravity so the movie doesn't float away completely. The romantic complications and pairings evoke Shakespeare, or at least Gershwin, and the movie's climax is a full-on musical number set to "Things Are Looking Up" (from the '37 Astaire picture). A charming tune. And in its own arch key, helped by sweet performances from Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton (Lily), Zach Woods (as the editor of the school newspaper, The Complainer) and others, the film -- a contraption, but a likable one -- establishes its own set of rules and sticks to them.
'Damsels in Distress' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content including some sexual material)
Running time: 1:39