The problem with 'indie' films these days is that they have become as formulaic and predictable as Hollywood thrillers, but in a different way. Instead of helicopters, machine guns, Bruce Willis and a set of bad guys, you get a misfit protagonist, a dysfunctional family, a precocious kid, and a bit of drug-taking. That's why Whit Stillman's return to the cinemas is such a blessing. He's that rare thing: an independent filmmaker who really does have an independent voice, rather than merely copying others. His vision of the world is entirely unique. His trio of comedies -- Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco -- were among the best films of the 1990s. They were stand alone films, but a single theme united them: each mounted a defence of formal, old-fashioned values against the prevailing liberal orthodoxy.
Fourteen years later, he's still at it. Damsels in Distress is about a trio of girls, led by 'Violet' (Greta Gerwig), who are determined to introduce civility and cleanliness to their male-dominated college campus. They plan to do this with cookies, soap, and tap dancing. A more sceptical girl, Lily, joins their group; she questions their methods. So does the editor of the college newspaper. So does one of the tap-dancing girls they are trying to help. It then transpires that Violet does not have an unblemished history of sanity herself. Despite everything, will she and her friends manage to bring civilisation to the frat guys?
This is a great set up. Infuriatingly -- as also happened in Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco -- the film wanders away from this central premise and dwindles into a prolonged dating story. Who is going to pair off with whom? Will Violet end up with Pete, Frank, or Xavier? The fact is, we don't care: they all look identical anyway. Whit Stillman is such a good filmmaker in so many other ways that you wonder if this sort of drifting storyline is intentional. I'm not sure it is. Metropolitan is the only one of his films to deliver a strong story, and is the better film for it. The eventual union of left-wing Tom and preppy Audrey dramatises the film's central theme. Having watched Damsels In Distress three times now, I can't even remember who Violet ends up with, or why it should matter.
But there is so much else to enjoy here. The earnest, jejeune dialogue that is Stillman's trademark. Tap-dancing. A college guy who doesn't know the names of the primary colours. An unforced good-naturedness. An admirable resistance to modern fads. Excellent performances by Greta Gerwig and fellow actors. And a funny scene in a diner involving a bar of soap and two highway repair men. Despite its flaws it's far better than most of the comedies being made these days, and for that alone it's worth five stars.