Among the many great moments in This is Spinal Tap is the scene where members of the back-in-the-US band become excited when they hear one of their early hippy hits on American radio, only for the moment to turn to muck when the DJ then says that the rockers currently reside in the 'where are they now?' category. As Whit Stillman recently told the RTÉ Guide, he had a similar experience with his own page on IMDB, where a movie fan's opinion of the long-lost writer-director was that he must be either lazy - or dead. That's what happens when there's a 14-year gap between your films, but that near-decade-and-a-half lay-off (projects fell through and there was a family to raise) hasn't dulled Stillman's love of dry humour or gabby twentysomethings with more opinions than sense. If you enjoyed his Metropolitan, Barcelona or The Last Days of Disco, chances are you'll get a kick out of the light and fluffy Damsels in Distress. However, if your templates for campus comedies are Animal House or Old School, stay well away - and if your best pal is a cynic, beg them not to go.
The setting is Seven Oaks University on the East Coast where, we are told, "an atmosphere of male barbarism predominates". It is here that Violet (Gerwig) and her friends Rose and Heather (Echikunwoke and MacLemore) try to fight the good fight - dressing with class, running a suicide prevention centre (prevention being ten-tenths of the cure as opposed to the usual nine), staging interventions on the recently dumped, extolling the benefits of tap dancing as a therapy for the depressed and dating inferior men so that they can make them cooler. Just as new member Lily (Tipton) joins the gang, leader Violet loses the run of herself (in a very Violet way) and has to re-assess matters of head and heart. Just how would the dance classes cope without their visionary?
Before Damsels in Distress was finished, Stillman got in touch with distributors to express the wish that his movie play in as many ramshackle cinemas as possible. That may sound like self-sabotage, but Stillman's assertion that his "little fragile comedy" wasn't made for the multi-plexes was bang-on: Damsels... feels like it has more in common with Seventies arthouse cinema than the business in 2012 and needs the wry chuckles of tightly-packed punters to play at its best. Aside from the peccadilloes of one on-screen French chancer, it's as safe a first date movie as possible, but anyone and their potential other half will need to be giddy and in search of a whimsy high to enjoy these characters. They mouth-off at great length about, well, nothing; they aren't fully developed and they take part in a song-and-dance number at the end. Most troubling of all, someone sitting nearby may even be tempted to join in.
A downright odd slice of folly and feelgood which re-affirms Stillman's status as one of the movie world's one-offs. It's good to have him back - unlike Spinal Tap, his appeal was always selective.