Sunday, Sep. 18, 2011

Damsels in Distress

Three more schoolgirls: but a little older, way more cheerful and preternaturally vapid — and darned proud of it. At the staid Seven Oaks College, sophomores Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) run a suicide prevention center for depressed students and debate the proper plural of "doofus." They could be the megabitches from the classic teen horror comedy Heathers who'd gone on to the same college and become kinda nice. Violet's most absorbing mission: to create a new dance craze, the Sambola. At the end of the film, everyone Sambolas, and instructions for the steps are printed on screen.

Writer-director Whit Stillman has been silent since completing his '90s trilogy on the mild exasperations of Manhattan Yuppiedom; Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco might have been American Psycho without the psycho. This time he steps out of sync with the Zeitgeist to create a late-adolescent milieu of pleasing, almost defiant blandness; next to Damsels, in a competition of teen musical comedies, Grease would have to be renamed Grit. The movie finds its studiously giddy center in the performance of Gerwig, the mumblecore-film goddess who this year snagged an Independent Spirit Award for her role as Ben Stiller's girlfriend in Greenberg.

But we suspect that Stillman's spokesman is Fred, a frat-rat currently working on "a history of the decline of decadence." (The movie might be a larkish essay on the consequences of inconsequentiality.) Told that he's romanticizing the past, Fred says, "Well, the past is gone, so we might as well romanticize it." No less than Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea, Stillman's film is a tribute to emotions and genres a half-century old — sort of Gidget meets The Group. Innocence deserted teen movies ages ago, but it makes a comeback, revived and romanticized, in this joyous anachronism.