Whit Stillman, gone from movies for 13 years, brings his familiar dry tone to a tale of college students with crackpot ideas.
Set at the fictional Seven Oaks College (itself played by a historic sailor’s retreat on New York’s Staten Island), the film centers on the romantic and social aspirations of a presumptuous, daft upperclassman Violet (mumblecore It Girl Greta Gerwig) and a willowy, thoughtful transfer student named Lily (Analeigh Tipton of “Crazy Stupid Love”).
At the start of the school year, Violet takes Lily under her wing, introducing her to a little knot of vaguely priggish, stiff-mannered girls who run a suicide prevention center, make a project of ennobling dimwitted frat boys with their companionship, and aspire to change the world with a new dance craze. They’re not snobs or mean girls, not nearly. But they are disconnected from modern reality in a way that’s at once comical and creepy. And the men in their lives -- a pair of idiotic frat boys (hilariously played by Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen) and a pair of, as one girl terms them, “operator” types -- are simultaneously disconcerted and magnetized by them, though neither stops them from acting like cads or worse.
The plot is hardly the thing in a Whit Stillman film, but “Damsels” (which adapts its title, a song and a minor character from a 1937 Fred Astaire film), is choppier than its predecessors, comprised, really, of a string of incidents and even gags that are more connected by tone and setting than logic. Some of it is dazzling in its drollery and quiet cheek. But more than a bit of it underwhelms, and some is appallingly flat.
And yet Stillman and his actors do things that you just don’t see and that you wish the movies had more of. Gerwig is a charming vessel for the director’s pithy depiction of an entitled mind gone slightly off track, there are cleverly built bits involving soap and dancing and half-hearted suicide attempts, and there is wonderful, quirky, keenly honed talk all throughout. Whitman might require a few more films to get the storytelling and staging aspects of his art back to full muscularity, but his ability to capture a certain strain of the American vernacular and the American mind hasn’t deserted him in his hiatus. And it’s delightful to behold it anew.
(99 min., PG-13, Fox Tower) Grade: B