Whit Stillman’s first movie in more than 12 years is an exceptional achievement – a fresh, bold, effortlessly witty campus comedy that is close to unbearable.

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A kind of posh Hal Hartley, Stillman’s reputation hinges on three films he made in the 90s – Metropolitan, Barcelona, Last Days of Disco. They earned him a reputation as a “literate” director and that’s surely the case with Damsels in Distress: It must look great on paper.

The lightest of touches is applied to this tale of the loves and lives of a clique of well-groomed, elitist girls. They are a group familiar from any number of high school movies.

The twist here is that the clique is actually kindly and well meaning; they run a suicide prevention centre and date boys who are neither overly intelligent nor good looking, taking them on as doer-upper opportunities.

During Freshers Week their attentions alight on new girl Lily (Analeigh Tipton) and take her under their wing.

The film is sunk by a single idea. Having written a script that is packed with sharp observations and killer lines, Stilman holds his cast to a stiff, stilted delivery of his gems, like a class of children cold-reading a text that is way beyond them.

I assume this is intended to capture a sense of these youngsters’ first faltering attempts at filling their adult roles. A nice idea but for viewers it is like being stuck in some terribly well appointed cult where a group of talented youngsters have had their spirit stripped away and are left as blank-faced, hypnotised automatons.

It is almost cruel: a tantalising glimpse of pleasures that are constantly withheld from you. You want to be on its side and hope for the moment when it will click. (I’m sure DID will be adored by some, and I envy them.)

It does though contain a charming central performance from Greta Gerwig who, after about 15 minutes, seems to free herself from the trance.

Despite her slight frame she has a clumpy awkwardness that is very appealing and a lovely sad stoical pout. If someone could have released the other damsels we could have really had something.

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (12A)

Director: Whit Stillman

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Adam Brody, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore

Length: 99 mins

**

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