Every social group deserves to have their own bard. For neurotic New York Jews, it’s Woody Allen. For urban blacks, it’s Spike Lee. And for the socially uptight and arcane social circles of upper-crust WASPs, it’s Whit Stillman.
As the writer-director of three 1990s indie-movie classics in “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco,” Stillman mined the neuroses of the motivationally challenged yet moneyed elite. The films were literate, extremely witty and beloved by a sturdy core of fans, yet Stillman still fell into a disappearance that was so long and deep that it seemed to rival only fellow auteur Terence Malick in its mysterious and obstinate nature.
But just as Malick returned after 20 years away to make “The Thin Red Line,” Stillman has found his way back to the screen. And in some social circles, that’s a deal as big or bigger than that of his Texan peer. And thankfully, he hasn’t lost his touch.
“Damsels in Distress” is a highly clever and intellectual comedy with a strong ear for funny dialogue, highly unique characters and a refreshingly near-complete absence of profanities and obscenitie, as well as an absence of violence or strong sexual material. It’s a movie that seems incapable of offending anyone, and as such, in the weekend wherin the”American Pie” films make their raunchy return with “American Reunion,” it might draw an even broader audience than usual for Stillman.
As par for the course with Stillman, the magic of this film lies in its characters and effervescently witty dialogue more than in its thin plot, which follows the exploits of four girls who try to overturn the gross intrusion of modern morals into their historic small-town university. Led by Violet (Greta Gerwig), her cohorts Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie Maclemore) take new transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under their wing on her first day, and try to steer her away from the modern wave of loose living that they believe threatens their school, and towards a life lived with the values and styles of the 1950s and prior decades.
The core trio of good girls are best known on campus for running the school’s suicide prevention center, which is the source of many running jokes as the girls constantly assume other girls are suicidal when they’re either at just a normal level of sadness or not even sad at all. As Lily weighs whether to fully follow these sudden leaders’ advice or not, she is also tempted into a one-time sexual encounter with a male student, which leads to her being unhappy with her actions.
The four girls forge onward in search of men who will respect them, as well as with leader Violet’s quest to start a worldwide dance craze (also of the traditional, ballroom-style, variety). Without giving away the subtle twists and turns of everyone’s relationships, the film offers occasional gentle laughs at the extremes by which the girls live, yet always treats them with great respect, seeming to take their side in the culture wars.
With a refreshing moral worldview and a minimum of objectionable content, the film was rated PG:13 nonetheless for the buildup to the unseen sexual encounter and the frequent gags about suicide, which are so absurdly funny they can’t be taken seriously.
The only downside is that the girls are SO moral and traditional that it renders the film almost too unbelievable. But those who appreciate smart, clean comedy will find themselves wishing the world could be so sweet a place.