‘Damsels in Distress’ on the joys of helping ‘stupid boys’ and tap dancing in water fountains

Before Wes Anderson made a name for himself with “Rushmore” and kindred spirit Noah Baumbach found his voice in “Kicking and Screaming” there was another filmmaker bringing a quirky, WASP-y world view to independent cinema, Whit Stillman.

From 1990 to 1998, Stillman made three films that helped shape a particular voice in American films: “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona,” and “The Last Days of Disco.” Along the way Stillman found himself nominated for an Academy Award, honored with the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury prize and lauded as the next “big” thing.  And then?  Nada. Nothing. Not a peep.  For 13 years Stillman was strangely absent from cinemas until last fall when his fourth film, “Damsels in Distress,” debuted at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals.  And for those theatergoers looking for some intelligence and, um, wit in their comedies, “Damsels” may be the perfect spring surprise.

Set at Seven Oaks, a somewhat generic American university, the film centers on three “damsels”  – Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) – who hope to turn the lives of their hopeless classmates around through their efforts in unconventional suicide prevention therapy and unsolicited advice.  Bizarrely, the trio seem to be living and thriving in their own world of prim and proper rules that don’t quite fit in the 21st Century, but since it’s college everyone around them just indulges in their quirkiness.  After meeting the seemingly shy Lily (“Crazy, Stupid Love’s” Analeigh Tipton), the trio appears on its way to becoming a quartet.  Unfortunately for Violet, the leader of the retro-clique, Lily ends up the truth behind each “damsel” to light and it isn’t be pretty.  Will the ladies find their own path to love, happiness and, um, tap dancing in the end?  And isn’t Adam Brody a little old to be playing one of the love interests? I digress, but you can bet Stillman finds a way to avoid cliches while still providing a requisite happy ending.

After enjoying the film at Toronto, I was finally able to sit down with the four talented actresses in Los Angeles last month to talk about their moments in “Distress.”  During an extensive group interview, the ladies reflected on their characters, how they landed each role (Gerwig fought to play Violet), Stillman’s directing methods and the joy of tap dancing in a fountain in the film’s big musical number.  You can watch the interview embedded in the post above and their enthusiasm and charm make it well worth your time.

“Damsels in Distress” opens in limited release Friday.

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