If you think you’ve waited a long time for “The Avengers” to hit the screen, imagine how fans of writer-director Whit Stillman must feel about “Damsels in Distress”: Stillman, who became an art-house darling with “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco” in the 1990s, has taken almost 14 years off from filmmaking. Even so, the long hiatus has not tarnished his talent for concocting deliciously witty, eccentric comedies, and “Damsels” shows Stillman returning to the game in high style.
Stillman’s reputation was built on stories about privileged young people trying to maintain their lofty ideals while making their way through the dreaded Real World (a far cry from MTV’s “Real World,” a series a typical Stillman character would probably never be caught dead watching). “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “Disco” are like Woody Allen films for the Gen X set; “Damsels” continues the theme as Stillman once again demonstrates his skill in crafting fascinatingly offbeat female characters, like the unapologetically opportunistic vampire Kate Beckinsale played in “Disco,” or Carolyn Farina’s intellectually inclined debutante in “Metropolitan,” who joins in the customs of her social circle while seeing through the people who perpetuate them.
“Damsels” introduces us to Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), a student who runs the “Suicide Center” — it’s supposed to be the “Suicide Prevention Center,” but the middle panel of the sign is missing — at the fictitious Seven Oaks College. Although she operates within a cocoon of supposedly hard-earned wisdom, Violet’s ambitions seem awfully daydreamy. She’s a firm believer in the healing power of tap-dancing and her ultimate fantasy is to take her choreographic creation, the Sambola (“The Devil’s Dance!” she dubs it), nationwide.
Before she can do that, however, the cheerfully domineering Violet has to shoulder the burden of leading her classmates through the minefield of life at a liberal-arts school, where heartbreaks and shattered illusions show up as regularly as pop quizzes. “You can love someone whose mental capacity is not large,” Violet counsels a friend. “I know! I have!”
Gerwig makes Violet’s high-mindedness utterly endearing and hilarious; with her sophisticated sweep and sweetly clueless nature, she seems to have just stepped out of a 1930s Carole Lombard comedy. Even when Violet is putting people down — she calls the surly editor of the college paper, The Daily Complainer, “unkind, self-righteous and pedantic; in other words, a model journalist” — she can’t help but sound lovable. Rare is the actress who could take a line like “When you have problems yourself, it’s great to hear about someone else’s truly idiotic ones” and make it completely disarming, but Gerwig does it effortlessly.
Analeigh Tipton also shines as Lily, the campus newcomer who is immediately taken under Violet’s wing, even though she doesn’t completely fall under Violet’s spell like the blissfully bubble-brained Heather (Carrie MacLemore) or the cautious, amusingly affected Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke). If, as their names indicate, the women are all flowers, the men are mostly thorns, some of them sharp, such as Adam Brody’s pretentious fop who is writing a thesis on “the decline of decadence,” and some of them amusingly blunted, such as the hard-working but dim-witted Thor (Billy Magnussen).
Welcome back, Mr. Stillman — and please don’t make us wait another 14 years for your next film.