2013 - 98 minutes
Written and directed by: Liz W. Garcia
Starring: Kristen Bell, David Lambert, Mamie Gummer, Martin Starr, Amy Madigan, Joshua Harto, Alex Shaffer
The seal of Official 2013 Sundance Film Festival Selection is proudly and prominently displayed on the poster for “The Lifeguard,” which is fitting as the film plays like a 98-minute ode to indie filmmaking. Problem is it doesn’t carve its own identity, too desperately focused on particular beats that pander for indie-cred to care about its own coherence. The only thing that sustains the film and keeps it barely afloat is the performance from Kristen Bell, who mostly drops her cutesy comedic aura to delve into some darker places.
Bell plays Leigh, who has become disenchanted with her life as a reporter in the big city. In a very brief opening that plays like a (very) lo-fi Terrence Malick sequence, we get impressions of her frustrations in a dark and unforgiving New York. A story she’s working on with a depressing ending gets to her; she’s in a quasi-relationship with an unavailable man. This causes her to act on a relatable desire – ditching the land of her current depression to return to where she was last happy. For Leigh, this is her parents’ house in her quiet Connecticut hometown.
She has no idea of what her goals are. This setup offers myriad possibilities, most of which would be more interesting than the routes writer/director Liz W. Garcia chooses to take. The overbearing theme of personal betterment or change is drilled into so often it quickly loses any effectiveness or semblance of truth and we only see it as a trite refrain.
Leigh’s parents are building an addition on their home that has been in progress for years; her mother (Amy Madigan) is trying to start a dance instruction business. Her old friend Todd (Martin Starr) is a gay man who’s yet to come out of the closet. Another old friend, Mel (Mamie Gummer) is an assistant principal trying to conceive with her husband, but quickly devolves into Leigh’s lackey – smoking, drinking and doing drugs.
Furthering her regression to gain a foothold, Leigh takes her old job as a lifeguard in a condo complex, where she quickly becomes fascinated with a group of skateboarding teenagers including Jason (David Lambert). She relates to them so readily since they have the typical teenager anthem of “this town sucks” and their greatest desire is to get the hell out of there. In this and every scenario the film presents, on-the-nose dialogue clumsily moves the plot forward in attempts to drive home any threadbare idea.
An improbable but inevitable inappropriate relationship forms with Leigh and Jason to feed the dramatic fires, but nothing more. There are several sequences showing them in the act of romance, then several pauses showing Leigh pensively looking at the surface of the pool water or submerging herself. “The Lifeguard” never hesitates to show us how dramatic it’s attempting to be, and in doing so robs itself of any real drama.
The third act briefly introduces complications borne from the central relationship, dashes in a bit of forced tragedy that compels characters to react and then quickly wraps up with a posturing tone that attempts to make you think you’ve seen something. Don’t be fooled, there’s nothing to see here.
© 2013 by Blake Crane