Indie writer-director Whit Stillman returns after a 14-year absence from filmmaking with his new off-kilter comedy, “Damsels in Distress.” Like the Manhattan townhouses in “Metropolitan” (1990), an isolated setting provides much of the content for this movie. In “Damsels”, it’s Seven Oaks College where a quartet of beautiful girls set out to revolutionize life at the grungy institution. Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) heads the group, with principled Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), sweet-natured Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and transfer-student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) ready to help her reform the student population.
The camera follows Violet, Rose, and Heather during orientation as they search for a new member for their group. They spot Lily, a lost-looking girl who they take under their wing. The three explain that, as the student leaders of the Suicide Prevention Center, they aim to combat depression on campus via an odd program that combines donuts, good hygiene and tap-dancing. Violet hopes to turn this program into an international dance craze that will make the world a happier place.
This is the first of a series of odd notes characterizing this motley crew of college women, who not only hold strange ideas about the world but talk in an absurdly elevated way atypical for college students. Stillman followers might recognize this eccentricity as a trademark of his characters, but others might be put off by the peculiarity engineered into the story. In his earlier features, Stillman’s witty dialogue and fresh comic voice managed to endear his audience to even the most unorthodox characters. But here, most of the actresses lack the discipline as comedians to pull off their characters and charm the audience.
At first, Lily serves as an interesting paradox to Violet’s unusual methods, with her initial naivete and curiosity challenging Violet’s views. But as the film rolls along, Tipton’s performance turns stiff, and by the end her inconsistent acting makes a mess of the character. Down the casting line, Echikunwoke and MacLemore don’t take any great strides to have their already petty characters make any lasting impression. Stillman hands Echikunwoke some of the best lines but the actress can’t even summon enthusiasm into her delivery.
Praise Stillman for casting Greta Gerwig, who is authentic, funny and touching as Violet. Although not without her missteps, Gerwig’s scrappiness, quick line delivery and idiosyncratic inflections and expressions put a humorous spin missing from the rest of the cast. At times, even Stillman’s dialogue is too broad and arch for even the most skilled comedian to pull off. But Gerwig’s whimsy shines in the moments such as when she mentions the major problem in contemporary social life: people always dating people “cooler” than themselves. “Why not instead find someone who’s frankly inferior?” she tells Lily. “It’s more rewarding, and in fact quite reassuring.” She makes the quirkiness work and elevates the movie because of it.
The distressing thing about the script is that it never trusts Gerwig to single-handedly carry the movie, as she’s forced to share the spotlight with Tipton. The movie thus lies at a peculiar juncture within his usual level of quality. The killer dialogue and offbeat characters are still there, but the world of Seven Oaks is too disconnected from modern-day viewers. Unlike his previous films, which are rooted in realism, “Damsels” is anachronistic and alienating.
In all honesty, nothing much happens in the movie: musical numbers are performed, girls date and dump boyfriends and there’s tap-dancing. But nothing in this patchy comedy — except for Gerwig — is likely to get anyone’s toes tapping.