The Lifeguard (2013) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexuality, brief graphic nudity, drug use, language and a disturbing image - some involving teens
Running time: 98 min.
Cast: Kristen Bell, Mamie Gummer, David Lambert, Amy Madigan, Martin Starr, Joshua Harto, Alex Shaffer, John Finn, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Paulie Litt
Director: Liz W. Garcia
Screenplay: Liz W. Garcia
Review published August 9, 2013
The Lifeguard stars Kristen Bell (Safety Not Guaranteed, Fanboys) as Leigh London, an up-and-coming reporter for the Associated Press who questions her career choice when dealing with a particularly heart-wrenching story involving the sickness and death of young tiger being held captive in someone's New York apartment. To top it off, she's having an affair with her boss (Ramamurthy, "Heroes"), who is not only engaged with another woman, but he thinks her emotional piece belongs more as a personal interest story than an expose. She goes AWOL from the job in order to return back to her Connecticut hometown to reconnect with her parents, friends, and familiar environs, taking up her old high school job as an apartment complex swimming pool lifeguard, which just so happens to be open and willing to hire her on the spot.
Despite being two months away from 30 years old, going back home brings up memories of her teenage years, which she begins to rekindle as she befriends some local teenagers who like to skate on their boards on their old stomping grounds, smoke weed and drink beer, even getting some of her best friends, Todd (Starr, Deep Dark Canyon) and Mel (Gummer, Side Effects), to join in on the fun. However, sometimes you can't come home again, as complications arise from their reckless activities that affects their home lives, not the least of which comes from Leigh developing romantic feelings for Little Jason (Lambert, "Aaron Stone"), one of the teenage boys she hangs out with.
The Lifeguard is an indie film written and directed by TV's "Cold Case" scribe Liz W. Garcia, who offers up some interesting characterizations and story developments for her first feature film, and draws out some very good performances from her cast. However, the film ultimately falls short of a solid recommendation due to its dabbling with poignancy that it never really is able to tackle head on, leaving it feeling like a slow-paced mood piece in which many questions are raised but only a few are resolved. I guess the biggest knock on the film is that it tends to be boring when it should be absorbing, even with some steamy sex scenes involving Kristen Bell that are rarely seen outside of a soft-core porn flick on late-night cable TV.
Garcia wrote the story, at least in setting, on her personal experience growing up in a small Connecticut town, and having worked there as a lifeguard. The story stays fairly true to reality for the most part, with one exception, a tragedy that befalls one of the characters, that occurs late in the film that seems a bit too heavy for this relatively uneventful film to support the weight of. However, that moment really draws out the impressive acting chops of David Lambert, who nails the scene, so I'm reluctant to criticize too harshly. The introduction of the captive tiger article evokes themes to come; most of the key characters in the story are trapped in an existence that they're trying desperately, and often futilely, to claw out of. Perhaps Leigh finds the tiger's plight particularly traumatic given that she's feeling trapped in her own existence and just wants to be free again.
One of the more troubling aspects about The Lifeguard is that Leigh comes off as unsympathetic much of the time. She lacks a certain ethical fortitude by not only engaging in a sexual affair with her boss, but it is further morally dubious because he's in a relationship with someone else. Following this, she shows a complete lack of responsibility in her career by leaving without notice, then barges her way back in to the lives of her parents, who were probably anxious to have their own time to live away from what appears to be a very bratty daughter (Leigh had been valedictorian for her high school class, but she seems to have lost every shred of discipline and responsibility over the years).
Then she gets her friends, who seem to have their act together, to partake in constant partying and getting high with some juvenile delinquents, which puts severe strain on not only their friendships, but also their own relationships, as well as placing the career of one of her dearest friend's in jeopardy -- a vice principal who is desperately trying to have a child with her husband (Harto, The Dark Knight) until she is reunited with Leigh; now all she wants to do is party with Leigh and the youth of her school she's supposed to look out for. (Meanwhile, the husband is written to look like a jerk for being upset that his wife is behaving grossly irresponsible.) Finally, Leigh decides to have sex with a minor -- and not just once. Then she tries to cajole the lad to giving up his big plans he had made with his best friend so that he can spend more time with her having sex, leaving that friend in the cold. In short, she's self-obsessed and without much character, Why should we care a lick what happens to her?
And I haven't even mentioned that Leigh's actions are the catalyst for a death in the film.
Despite this, the film has its moments, even though, in the end, it's a story only a few will fully relate to. Like Leigh's search for self, Garcia's movie feels like it's adrift, in a search for meaning of its own, occasionally hitting an erudite truth, but, for the most part, not able to string it all together into a cohesively powerful whole. Though it may be a bit of a slog for most viewers, it's possible that if you're a woman in your 20s and 30s and feel like you're going through a mid-midlife crisis, and have made some bad life choices along the way, The Lifeguard may provide just the catharsis you need to reflect on your own life with a kindred spirit, albeit in a fictional form. It's about the speed bump many go through, where we are torn between heading through the door of maturity, but still desiring to cling to our sheltered adolescence, but knowing that, eventually, we have to grow up if we want to be a complete person.
©2013 Vince Leo