There are few American filmmakers as idiosyncratic as Whit Stillman. Known for a trio of drily witty independent movies he made during the 1990s – Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco – Stillman disappeared from filmmaking for more than a decade. He has finally returned with his fourth feature, Damsels in Distress, a comedy that is both quintessentially Stillman-esque and a definite departure from his earlier output.
Focusing on a quartet of college girls all named after flowers, Damsels documents their ups and downs with the inconstant young men in their lives. Stillman's trademark deadpan-quirky dialogue is infused with an unexpected amount of creative license: for example, the college – which isn't filmed on an actual campus – uses a Roman letter system for its fraternities, instead of Greek. Thus, instead of Greek-themed toga parties, the frat boys throw a Roman bacchanal. And there's even a few dance numbers.
If you couldn't stand the pretentious preppies who populated Stillman's first three films, you may not be won over by Damsels in Distress. Personally, though, I think it's his best film, and certainly his funniest and most accessible, despite all the offbeat details.
The trick, I think, is in the casting. Whereas Metropolitan earned good will for its amateur cast (many of whom never performed again) and Barcelona was essentially a buddy film built around its predecessor's standout stars, Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols (the latter of whom has a cameo in Damsels), I found The Last Days of Disco a bore because its actors, talented though they may have been, were so damn unlikable in their roles. This time the cast shines, especially leading lady Greta Gerwig. Indie cinema's latest "It" girl, Gerwig is known mostly for starring in a series of mumblecore movies, but I found her eccentric performance as the unpredictable know-it-all Violet to be utterly charming. Another standout in the group of appealing (and experienced) young actors is newcomer Ryan Metcalf as possibly the dumbest frat boy who ever lived.
This is a great entry point for anyone interested in Stillman's work: Damsels in Distress is wry, imaginative, and occasionally silly, but it does have something on its mind, and it certainly could not have been made by any other filmmaker. You might adore it, you might detest it. But you can't say it isn't unique.