In the ’90s, Whit Stillman was one of the US indie scene’s bright young things, a chronicler of neurotic, narcissistic, upper-crust youth whose 1990 debut Metropolitan was an undoubted inspiration for the career of Wes Anderson.
But where’s he been hiding since his last film, 1998’s The Last Days Of Disco? In a cryogenic chamber, if this is anything to go by.
There’s an odd, throwback quality to his present-day campus-com, where characters don’t use cellphones or Facebook but do wear sweater sets and attend toga parties. But that’s also what gives Damsels its quirky charm.
Choosing to set his belated comeback in an East Coast university that’s only just started accepting female students allows Stillman to offer an eccentric perspective on the modern world.
Stillman’s damsels don’t Tweet but they are twee, not least Violet (Greta Gerwig, superb), the movie’s comically earnest queen bee. Her pretension matched only by her ignorance, Violet’s college mission is to date frat boys beneath her social and intellectual status.
She also likes to help clinically depressed fellow students, via the medium of choreographed dance routines. Like some do-gooder offshoot of Heathers, Gerwig and her colourfully attired posse wrangle innocent transfer student Lily (Crazy Stupid Love’s Analeigh Tipton) into their screwball fold before she has time to protest.
Stillman’s knack for subtle, acerbic humour and characters tarnished by their own flawed idiocy is still intact, even if some of his quirk factor now plays as overly self-conscious (there’s a very weird discussion of anal sex).
And while he’s never been one for iron-clad plotting, Damsels is especially rudderless, punctuated by batty observations and didactic arguments that spin off into tangents that don’t make much sense.
Thirteen years is a long time, and Stillman’s rustiness shows. Thankfully, he’s still got a wicked way with words, and Gerwig gives off so much sparkle that we’re prepared to grant Damsels a pass.
A mixed return for Stillman, Damsels is so whimsically out of step it’s like a time-travel comedy without the time travel. Fortunately, Gerwig and some dazzling dialogue save his blushes.