Whit Stillman came out of nowhere — well, Harvard, New York City, Spain, and careers in journalism and movie sales — to make Metropolitan in 1990, and indie-film aficionados tripped over themselves to shower it with praise. The light drama showed us the thoughts and opinions of a group of privileged, WASP-ish Manhattan young people as they partied after a debutante ball. There was nothing at the movies quite like it. The writer-director followed that with Barcelona and the estimable The Last Days of Disco. The world was his oyster.
Then Whitman disappeared for thirteen years, living in Europe and reportedly working on film projects that never reached stateside. Now he's back, with a college comedy called Damsels in Distress that's as flat and awkward as his first three projects were effervescent. He should have kept his hand in the game all those years. Time seems to have passed him by.
At fictional, ivy-ish Seven Oaks College, a clique of prim and catty female students negotiate the typical satirical university terrain — selecting mates, jockeying for status, drinking, complaining about uncouth frat boys ("that awful, acrid odor"), choosing the right soap, etc. — but with a self-consciousness that surpasses anything in Metropolitan, and dialogue so arch and epigrammatic that the movie abruptly stops and starts with each new pronouncement. At times it sounds exactly like a vintage educational PSA.
We can accept studied or archaic language in a movie — the Coen Bros.' True Grit, for instance — as long as there's a narrative payoff in sight. Damsels in Distress, nominally about the social progress of Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) and her friends Lily (Analeigh Tipton), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie McLemore), gets trapped in the thickets to no particular point. It's fun for the first few exchanges, but wears off quickly.
Gerwig, celebrated priestess of mumblecore (Greenberg, Baghead), looks out of place in Stillman's trapped-in-amber character study. We prefer her when she's adorable, even though she has the talent to repeat the dialogue convincingly. Thousands couldn't. Watching Damsels in Distress, our thoughts drift away to filmmaker Eric Rohmer's portraits of young people searching for romance, their vulnerability, and basic fortitude. Compared to Rohmer's characters, Violet and her circle are a row of billboards. By the time the movie peters out, we've already graduated.
Correction: The original version of this review misstated the title of Whit Stillman's 1990 film, Metropolitan.