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'Damsels in Distress' review: The best movie of the year so far

**** (out of four)

“Come on, it’s not that bad!”

That banner, hanging inside a college suicide prevention center, offers a perfect glimpse at the dry, absurd wisdom of “Damsels in Distress,” writer-director Whit Stillman’s first movie since 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco.” His latest is also my favorite from this filmmaker (“Metropolitan,” “Barcelona”) who repeatedly explores social dynamics and linguistic oddities without a sense that he’s failing to expand on previous territory. (Cough, Terrence Malick, cough.)

Sort of a cross between an ironic intellectual exercise and “Clueless Goes to College,” “Damsels” revolves around Violet (Greta Gerwig), the leader of a pack of college girls who advocates the rescue and support of girls in need and unattractive, unintelligent guys who fail to realize their full potential. Think “Beauty and the Geek,” if the women wanted to be there more than the guys.

Violet and her crew of fellow juniors (Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke) adopt sophomore transfer Lily (Analeigh Tipton of “Crazy Stupid Love”), whom Violet notes, in her passive-aggressive commentary, either “failed or was unhappy” at her other school. Lily doesn’t really buy Violet’s belief that women should find an inferior partner, or her mantra that tap dancing represents the ultimate in therapy for depressed students.

Yet Lily finds some comfort in a group that observes and diagnoses the college men, both “rat playboy operators” with an agenda and beer-chugging frat boys the girls deem too dumb to be elitist. Stillman’s rapid-fire, dignified-yet-foolish dialogue swirls to create a warped rhythm and logic that twists into a strange, inside-out wisdom. Smart people can say dumb things and vice-versa, Stillman seems to say, with a giddy, absurd cleverness supporting a depiction of all people as deeply flawed and lacking a wide variety of information.

There’s a sad, weirdly funny truth to the girls’ chats about the power of a dance craze, which salute that rare beast: A unifying, happy experience for all to share.

Stillman’s rounded up excellent actresses (MacLemore in particular stands out as sweet, dopey Heather) to create multi-dimensional characters who can turn something seemingly moronic into food for thought. For example, Violet argues that being largely true, clichés represent “a stunning treasure trove of insight and knowledge.”

Social examination almost never feels this lively, funny and insightful. Worth seeing twice (at least), “Damsels” represents nothing less than a great movie about a goofy world—an articulate swoon of smarts posing as stupidity.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

 

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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