Violet Wister, the would-be campus reformer played by Greta Gerwig in Whit Stillman's weird, wacky and mostly wonderful college comedy "Damsels in Distress," arguably doesn't make much of a heroine. She's a veritable font of wisdom, which would be great except that nearly all of it is either factually wrong or extremely dubious. She heads a clique of undergraduate girls who seem alternately cruel and clueless. Her vaunted fashion sense mostly results in a fussy, awkward, ladylike demeanor that's something like a fifth-grader playing dress-up. But Violet has principles and lives by them, and for Stillman -- the chronicler of the Northeastern WASP elite's youthful eccentricities, who hasn’t released a film since "The Last Days of Disco" in 1998 -- that matters more than anything else.
Much of the peculiar magic in "Damsels in Distress" comes from Gerwig, who gives a powerful and complicated performance as a young woman who's difficult to like or to trust, but who goes through a crisis and ultimately wins our admiration. (Violet is a companion in spirit to Chloë Sevigny's gawky heroine in "Disco.") But Gerwig's not alone in this potent ensemble piece.