“YOU probably think we’re frivolous, empty-headed, perfume-obsessed college coeds,” says one such creature in “Damsels in Distress,” Whit Stillman’s whimsical paean to youthful dreamers. “You’re probably right.”
Well, not empty-headed.
The film’s erudite young women navigating the sub-Ivy campus of a fictional East Coast college are brimming with ideas and brainy theories. Tap-dancing, they’re certain, prevents suicide, and the perfect-smelling soap could change the world.
Stillman’s trio of arch 1990s comedies (“Metropolitan,” “Barcelona,” “The Last Days of Disco”) celebrated a kind of alternate universe populated by preternaturally witty, angst- filled preppies. In his welcome return to moviemaking, he doesn’t stray far from that rarified terrain. Only now he’s letting women do most of the talking.
Greta Gerwig gives a breakthrough performance as Violet Wister, the self-ordained (and self-invented) top girl of a cliquish campus threesome. Adam Brody (“The O.C.”) is her equally verbose love interest.
Pretty, stylishly prissy and opinionated if not always self-assured, Violet’s crew takes transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under its wing, mentoring the newcomer on how to survive the school’s “atmosphere of male barbarism.”
Writer/director Stillman has no interest in presenting an over-educated “Mean Girls,” though. His damsels are full of heart, however easily broken. Though they gag, literally, when a group of loud, sweaty athletes rolls by, Violet and her pals (Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore) are the first to defend lunkhead frat boys when the guys’ house is shut down.
Stillman’s quirks too often totter into twee territory -- there’s a full-blown musical number at the end -- and he zigzags along a very thin line between absurdity and idiocy. One of the girl’s boyfriends doesn’t know the names of colors because his demanding parents had him skip a year of nursery school.
“We’re all flawed,” Violet deadpans after Lily chastises her for something or other. “Must that render us mute to the flaws of others?” Certainly not, when it’s done with panache.