I wrote a couple of term papers like "Damsels in Distress" back in college, where the cleverness and enthusiasm of the writing tried to disguise the fact that I didn't have all that much to say on the subject.
And, make no mistake, "Damsels" is clever, and brims with offbeat charm from start to finish. How could it not: it's the first film in 14 years from writer-director Whit Stillman, who had a sparkling run in the '90s with "Metropolitan," "Barcelona," and "The Last Days of Disco."
"Damsels" is not in their league, but it's pretty fun nonetheless, a campus comedy set in the alternative universe of a Whit Stillman movie, where everyone is well-spoken and well-bred, and yet their erudition doesn't quite conceal the fact that they have no clue what they're doing.
At Seven Oaks College, three botanically-named coeds, Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), see themselves as doing missionary work among their uncouth and depressed fellow classmates. They date doltish frat guys in the hopes of elevating their social skills, send bars of soap discreetly to the smellier dorms on campus, and run the suicide prevention center, where they sincerely believe donuts and tap dancing are the key to mental health.
They take a new member, conveniently named Lily (Annaleigh Tipton), under their wing and show her the ropes. Various romantic entanglements and clean-cut hijinks ensue, and it all ends in a big musical number and an attempt to start a new dance craze, the Sambola.
The fact that the girls, and the film, is so baldly out of step with what most of us see as a modern campus culture is part of the charm of "Damsels." Nobody knowingly says anything funny in the film, but the dialogue is nonetheless witty, as Stillman affectionately teases all comers. The frat guys, for example, are ridiculously dumb; one doesn't even know the color of his own eyes ("Like, why would I check out my own eyes?")
But what's charming in the first half of the film turns somewhat strained in the second half, as Stillman refuses to gin up even the semblance of a plot (Gabe Woods of "The Office" is brought in as a potential villain in the campus newspaper editor, then unceremoniously dropped), and all the characters hold us at a pleasant but firm arm's length, like we're at a school dance with them in the 1950s.
Stillman obviously likes these characters, but he seems a little too polite and removed to want to make us love them. His return in "Damsels" ends up being like a friendly lunch with someone you used to have deep, all-night dorm-room conversations with back in college.