Whit Stillman returns with literate, odd ‘Damsels in Distress’

  • Wed Apr 25th, 2012 3:49pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

The school term is just beginning at mythical Seven Oaks College, a leafy institution that might be vaguely in the Ivy League but that mostly just seems mythical.

That’s because “Damsels in Distress,” the film set at Seven Oaks, takes place in a la-la land of its own devising, a sun-dappled world where the people talk in gracefully daffy curlicues and appear caught in a timeless loop of refined taste.

This, in other words, is a film by Whit Stillman, the writer-director who carved his own wonderful niche in indie film with “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco.”

“Disco” was his last movie, and that was 12 years ago. I interviewed Stillman on that occasion, and he said he was going to live in Europe for a while and work on a period film. Which never happened.

“Damsels in Distress” is, if anything, even more of a floating bubble of a movie than his previous efforts. Here, we meet a gaggle of female students who consider themselves the mentors to both uncouth, unattractive men (deemed to be better boyfriend material than handsome, confident males) and female newcomers to Seven Oaks.

The leader of this demure gang of self-appointed nurturers is Violet (Greta Gerwig), who offers her peculiar ideas with a serenity unbroken by logic or experience. She and her friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) decide to take in a new student as a project.

Actually, Lily (Analeigh Tipton, from “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) doesn’t need their help, but she goes along with things anyway. Mostly it’s Violet herself who needs to be bailed out, as her boyfriend (Ryan Metcalf) proves unworthy of her, thus producing an unexpected blip in her otherwise certain worldview.

These dialogue-heavy scenes play out around an unspecific college campus, as though conversation itself were the movie’s true location. The dialogue is so funny, and so well played, the actors might as well be standing in front of green screens, with still photos occasionally changing behind them.

I will admit that “Damsels” takes a while to grow on you. Stillman’s previous films were a little more initially appealing, but this one feels so disconnected from the real world that it needs to work its way into your head.

It helps that the lead figure is played by Greta Gerwig, who began in very low-budget indie projects and has lately been seen in “Greenberg” and “Arthur.”

Gerwig’s deadpan voice and large, soulful eyes radiate a kind of loopy sincerity, and her unfamiliarity with a friend’s depiction of a boyfriend’s loving gaze is one for the ages. She’s absolutely in tune with this movie’s oddball grace.

“Damsels in Distress” (3½ stars)

A group of self-appointed nurturers take care of the men at a mythical college, although the gang’s sincere leader (Greta Gerwig) is probably most in need of care herself. This literate, oddball film comes from writer-director Whit Stillman (“The Last Days of Disco”), whose customary dialogue-heavy style seems to take place in a floating bubble of unreality. But it’s awfully fun to watch.

Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.

Showing; Harvard Exit.