- - Thursday, April 12, 2012

There’s only one way to classify a Whit Stillman movie — and that’s as, well … a Whit Stillman movie. Despite his widespread influence on a generation of indie filmmakers, no one else makes movies quite like Mr. Stillman.

Indeed, “Damsels in Distress,” the director’s first film after a long hiatus, suggests that even Mr. Stillman no longer makes movies quite like he used to. “Damsels,” about a trio of young women who set out to reform the boys at an East Coast college, is sillier, shallower and altogether lighter on its feet than his early films.

Yet despite the differences, it remains recognizably a Whit Stillman film, albeit of a different weight and flavor. “Damsels” is a funny, entertaining, affecting trifle, but a trifle all the same.

Mr. Stillman directed three beloved films in the 1990s before taking a 14-year break. Those films, a trio of spry, nostalgic comedies about young adults coping with the end of certain eras, influenced a generation of indie filmmakers not only with their subject matter but with their adherence to a consistent aesthetic. The characters were almost universally well-read, well-off and well-spoken. They talked in sprightly, literary prose - not just sentences, but paragraphs - and were as anxious about the philosophy of existence as about their next date.

In recent years, Mr. Stillman’s early movies have become indie-comedy touchstones, complete with spiffy Criterion DVD releases. Coy, witty directors such as Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach all owe a clear debt to Mr. Stillman and his deftly refined sensibility. But where Mr. Stillman’s movies exuded an almost naive earnestness that seemed to emanate from another era, his followers substituted a hip sense of irony.

“Damsels,” by contrast, is refreshingly unhip. Instead, it is likably daffy, almost cartoonish in the broadness of its humor.

Its trio of “damsels” - led by the delightful Greta Gerwig, whose soft deadpan sets the movie’s tone - are inexplicably obsessed with foul smells. They claim to suffer from “nasal shock syndrome” and obsess over the smell of a motel soap, which perhaps suggests the clean and orderly world they aspire to create. The boys they seek to reform - listed in the opening credits as “their distress” - are all comically clueless, with exaggerated mannerisms and slapsticky character traits. (One particularly dim fellow literally cannot tell the difference between colors.)

Mr. Stillman, in other words, has gone goofy, and seems to be enjoying it. In interviews, the director has indicated that his previous films constituted a trilogy built in part out of autobiographical elements. Now, freed from some of his youthful dour impulses, he appears to be experimenting with a heightened comic affect. The experiment is not entirely successful: Tonally and structurally, the film is often uneven. Nor, ultimately, is it as memorable as his earlier work.

Even so, it is consistently funny, utterly charming, and literate in a way that’s rare for Hollywood. Mr. Stillman has not made a movie that quite matches his earlier work, but he once again has made a movie that only he could make.

TITLE: “Damsels in Distress”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Whit Stillman

RATING: PG-13 for tasteful but frank sexual discussion

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: ★★★★