Whit Stillman has proven himself to be a gifted director with a knack for creating entertaining and eccentric films about gregarious people who always have something on their minds and aren't afraid to talk about it. In Metropolitan (1990), he fashioned an engaging drama about some rich and clever socialites in Manhattan; in Barcelona (1994), he shifted gears with a drama about the lives and values of some Americans in Spain during the last decade of the Cold War; and in The Last Days of Disco (1998), he concocted a romantic comedy set in Manhattan during the 1980s with characters talking about dating, disco, sex, work, play, sanity, ethics, and much more. Damsels in Distress is Stillman's first movie in 12 years. It revolves around the adventures of four female college students as they seek to express their righteous indignation, their moral fervor, and their protest against "cool people." It is a very funny film.
Violet (Greta Gerwig who was so impressive in Greenberg) is an idealist who wants to make the campus a better place to live. She and her two friends, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie McLemore), have some pet projects: running a suicide-prevention center, promoting proper hygiene by preventing toxic frat-house odors, and taking under their wings Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student who seems open to their crusades.
One of Violet's peculiar practices is to date boys who are inferior in intellect and appearance to her as a way of critiquing the college worship of popularity. However, when another student, Priss (Caitlin Fitzgerald), steals her dumb frat boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf), she goes into a tailspin of depression.
Rose finds that most men are "playboy or operator types," and Heather finds herself attracted to Thor (Billy Magnussen) who thanks to an educational error by his parents can't identify colors. Adding to the dating confusions is Violet's connection with Charlie (Adam Brody) who is not the person he seems to be. Whereas he is busy writing a paper on "the decline of decadence," Violet carries on her crusade against vulgar words: "Nice. I want to be nice. Fine. These are not the adjectives I like to use. The Lord gave us abilities — he requires that we use them. Good. Better. Best. Excelsior! Higher! Only excellence can glorify the Lord."
Violet's animating dream is to start an international dance craze — sambola. She dances a tap number with her new beau as we listen to the lyrics from the song "Things Are Looking Up," a song recorded for the 1937 movie A Damsel in Distress by Fred Astaire and written by George and Ira Gershwin:
"Things are looking up
It's a great little world we live in
Oh, I'm as happy as a pup
Since love looked up at me."