In non-wonk terms, Stillman’s features seem as if they come from a different time. His first, Metropolitan, feels like an outlier from the 1950s, though it’s ostensibly set in the 1990s. The follow-ups, Barcelona (1994) and Disco (1998), take place in the early 1980s. The time periods don’t matter, really, because characters who speak with the timeless clipped precision of well-educated Upper East Side snobs populate all three of those films.
Damsels in Distress is different, sort of. It’s set in the present, but takes place at a small liberal arts college where the students generally speak with the timeless clipped precision of well-educated Upper East Side snobs.
The ever-so-slight story begins with an outsider, as all Stillman's films apparently must. Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a sophomore transfer student, is adopted into a clique of mildly snooty girls led by Violet (Greta Gerwig) and rounded out by Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Lily mildly protests being ingratiated into the group. Eventually she accedes. Whimsy ensues. The set-up and the setting work here, mainly because college is a great place to be snooty.
To be fair, Violet at least knows she's snooty and is gently good-natured about it. "You probably think we're frivolous, empty-headed, perfume-obsessed college coeds," Violet tells Lily. "You're probably right. I often feel empty-headed."
The movie is as frivolous as Violet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good fun. In that decade-plus without a feature, Stillman seems to have lost the things that are so off-putting about Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco. Namely, they exist in a wan alternate universe where anything resembling reality is pushed to the side like overcooked asparagus.
Damsels in Distress attempts to live in our world. In that respect, it’s similar to Barcelona, in which the real world collides with Chris Eigeman’s character via a bullet to the face.
Here, we have no guns, but we do have secondary characters who hate Violet—as many college kids would—and her need to stage dance routines as a way to stave off depression (or as she puts it, "a tailspin"). There are even a couple of anal sex jokes, which is at least as many as in American Reunion. The jokes are subtle—if indeed jokes about anal can be—with Violet explaining Lily was conned into giving it up "and not even on the right side."
As for what Damsels in Distress is about, it’s hard to say. Are Stillman’s movies about anything more than the navel gazing of its privileged protagonists? Gerwig is delightful as Violet, though one wishes Stillman could decide whether she or Tipton is the lead. Sometimes the screenplay meanders and doesn’t seem to know with whom it sympathizes more. But because there’s nothing at stake here other than well-spoken witticisms, it’s hard to quibble with the routes Stillman takes, even when the movie seems longer than its 99-minute running time.