"As a freshman, it can be pretty tough," Violet (Greta Gerwig) explains to Lily (Analeigh Tipton), newly arrived at Seven Oaks University. Lucky for her, Violet and her gal pals Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) have spotted her looking alone and uncertain about where to go next on orientation day.
As the girls named for flowers go forth in Damsels in Distress, they do display an affect resembling confidence. Whether manning the desk at a makeshift suicide prevention office or attending frat parties as a "form of youth outreach," they see their do-gooding from a perspective that might charitably be described as limited. Fond of pert sundresses and matching shoes, they're privileged but also primly ignorant. Their view of the world is premised on their rightness, which makes them at once typical and extreme, both the self-serious subjects and easy targets in Whit Stillman's first film in 14 years.
Violet's sincere cluelessness becomes a particular focus, her life lessons less earned than contingent on the ups and downs of her compatriots. One boy, Charlie (Adam Brody), is misleading in most every way, but cute. Lily's boy, the barbarically selfish but seemingly refined Xavier (Hugo Becker), poses another kind of problem: monopolizing her time and insisting on her silence regarding his odd sexual preferences. When the story comes out, the girls rally round Lily, and Violet devises her own way to handle both the newbie and her campaign to popularize a dance called the sambola.
These episodes proceed as such. That is, the girls don't so much follow arcs or form a community as they stand in for ideas that are at once broad, narrow and somewhat abstract. The film is flimsy, however intentionally. But it's also old. Even if it's set in a timeless world, a make-believe college campus where ambition and naÏveté abide, it never picks up speed, energy or much nerve. It simply tells you what you already know.