'Damels in Distress'

Chris Helcermans-Benge/Summit Entertainment

Writer-director Whit Stillman returns with a fizzy talk fest.

American cinema can ill-afford to lose voices as distinctive and intelligent as Whit Stillman, which makes the writer-director's return from a 13-year hiatus with the wonderfully offbeat comedy Damsels in Distress a cause for celebration. While this campus lark might not be quite up to the level of his three previous pictures (Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco), it's close enough to justify hopes that Stillman, 59, will now realize some of the tantalizing projects he's been linked with for the past few years.

The presence of fast-rising star Greta Gerwig and America's Next Top Model alumna Analeigh Tipton in prominent roles is a considerable commercial plus, and the genuinely sophisticated and smart Damsels could find appreciative audiences, especially in English-speaking countries where the precise calibration of Stillman's writing can be more fully appreciated.

Trailers emphasizing the film's song-and-dance elements, meanwhile, might lure the Glee crowd. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film in March.

Earlier versions of the script reportedly featured much more of the musical element,  but the emphasis is now on talk, talk, talk as we observe articulate characters discuss subjects that span -- and frequently combine -- the highbrow-intellectual, the tangentially daffy and the eyebrow-raising sexual, sometimes within the same sentence.

Much of the most memorable verbiage comes from the mouth of Violet Wister (Gerwig), a socially active student at a fictional New England university seldom seen without her admiring gal-pals Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Transfer-student Lily (Tipton) is initially bemused by Violet's forthright confidence and her approach to life's philosophical, practical and moral aspects.

Stillman spins a frothy confection whose flavors are simultaneously tart and sweet. He treads a tricky comic line between exaggeration and caricature, ensuring the film's many absurdities are generally more delightful than grating, and the damsels all get their chance to shine.

Cast Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Hugo Becker
Writer-director Whit Stillman
Producers Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer, Whit Stillman

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