When he was making such movies as "Metropolitan" (1990) and "Barcelona" (1994), director Whit Stillman got pigeonholed as the Lone Reactionary of the Apocalypse because his characters mouthed unapologetically conservative points of view, without the correctives customary to Independent Cinema. But Stillman the social critic was always looking beyond surfaces, and does so in "Damsels in Distress," his first film as a writer-director since "The Last Days of Disco" (1998).
Up front, it's a story about college girls who resist the status quo -- aka the Animal House aesthetic of the contemporary female student institution, in this case the bucolic Seven Oaks University. When virtuous Violet (Greta Gerwig), daffy Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and very proper Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) take wide-eyed innocent Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under their collective wing, it's to indoctrinate her into their particular world view, which involves volunteering at the student suicide-prevention center, the promotion of doughnuts and dancing as suicide preventatives, and the dating of unattractive men, because there's less at stake. Men are a major source of risk; our damsels are in distress largely because males exist.
Amid his wacky narrative and the pilgrim's progress of his quartet, Stillman creates a thoroughly eccentric, surreal atmosphere at Seven Oaks, where the sun never fails to provide halos for his well-lit heroines and the bad behavior is as overblown as the good.
But while he probably really does think the current atmosphere on college campuses is vile, what he's really concerned about is independent minds and critical thought, the very things higher education is supposed to promote and which his characters -- the damsels included -- have a hard time wrapping their pretty heads around.
For those who don't care what Stillman thinks, the acting and the music are delightful, the jokes arrive on schedule, and everything sort of glows.
It's an unusual film, from an unusual filmmaker, who continues to provoke, albeit in his own button-down sort of way.
PLOT College beauties, averse to bad taste and smelly men, try to change the word around them. RATING PG-13 (adult situations)
CAST Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Analeigh Tipton
PLAYING AT Manhasset Cinemas, Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington
BOTTOM LINE Triumphant comic return of director Whit Stillman to the realms of skewed perception, willful blindness and blissfully blinkered belief systems.