After making three delightfully distinctive films in the ’90s—Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco—Whit Stillman seemed to have vanished, leaving nobody to chronicle the adventures of the ludicrously articulate American upper class (or “urban haute bourgeoisie,” to use the term coined by one of his characters). So rejoice: He’s back! And he has a new young muse in Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), who plays Violet Wister, an energetic college undergrad determined to improve campus life by any means necessary, including volunteer work at the suicide prevention center (free doughnuts for the genuinely distraught only), setting up new friends with suitably idiotic boys (since guys without much going for them will be more grateful for the attention) and even kicking off a new dance craze (the Sambola).
While unmistakably his work, Damsels in Distress represents a major departure for Stillman, whose previous films, funny as they frequently were, seemed almost incidentally comedic. This one sports a much broader tone, along with lines that register as actual jokes rather than droll witticisms. Some of these efforts don’t quite work—he doesn’t know how to write buffoons, for example, so most of the male ensemble seems out of place—but his knack for off-the-wall dialogue and willful self-absorption remain blissfully intact, and Gerwig instinctively understands how to give Violet just the right slightly glassy mien. Ultimately, Damsels seems like little more than a fun palate-cleanser, but after 14 years of complete silence, that could scarcely be more welcome. Sambola!