' ' Cinema Romantico: The Lifeguard

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Lifeguard

You know the trope: city-dwelling character is forced by circumstance to un-reluctantly come home only to eventually find the values at home do and always have superseded those in the big ol' mean city and decides to remain home forever and forever. The late, great Roger Ebert once wrote: "I await a movie where a New Yorker tries moving to a small town and finds that it just doesn't reflect his warm-hearted big city values." "The Lifeguard", the brainchild of writer/director Liz W. Garcia, seems for a time, boldly, ready to heed Ebert's advice. Alas, convictions in cinema are harder to maintain than come by, and eventually it whimpers across the finish line.

Kristen Bell is Leigh. Twenty-nine (and ten months) and a reporter in New York, and about to encounter a solid dose of Symbolism in the form of a story involving a tiger chained up in an apartment. She packs her things and flees for her hometown in Connecticut.

There, in a scarily easygoing manner, she reverts not merely to an old life but to childhood. She moves back in with her parents (Amy Madigan and Adam LeFevre). Mom is suspect but Leigh is Daddy's Little Girl, and Daddy treats her just like one. She reclaims her teenage job as a lifeguard, as if it was just there waiting all these years for her return. She re-groups with a couple old high school pals. Todd (Martin Starr) works at an art gallery and is still in the closet. Mel (Mamie Gummer), assistant principal at the high school, is married and trying to have a baby.

A character asks Leigh: "Are you having a nervous breakdown?" The brusque opening of quick cuts and character fragments suggests without specifically saying so that is, in fact, what Leigh is undergoing, but that people ask her without much genuine follow up suggests an authenticity. No one really thinks anyone is in the midst of a nervous breakdown. That's just a cocktail party term for depression. Right?

I think it's highly legitimate that Leigh is in the midst of a serious and troubling rift with reality and appreciate that "The Lifeguard" suggests this possibility without belaboring it. For instance, her relationship with a disgruntled sixteen year old, Little Jason (David Lambert), seeking to light out for Vermont, is presented with little depth or texture. It's not unlike a teenage romance, driven primarily by hormones and an insatiable desire of I-Don't-Know-What-I-Want. Watching Leigh slip into the fictitious warmth of childhood routines like a Liz Lemon Slanket is unsettling.

And creepy. The film brings levity to her relationship with Little Jason, specifically in the way that an increasingly (convincingly) frazzled Mel realizes she has to stop looking the other way, act her age and confront her friend and the student of whom she is ostensibly a caretaker. I, like many others, have grown tired of movies presenting age-inappropriate relationships without so much as a hint of consequence, and here is "The Lifeguard" anteing up and painting not in black and white but ashen gray.

If it could have seen that toughness through to the last gritty frame it might have been something truly special with a headlining performance from Bell that is long on the courage to be unsympathetic. Alas, the film, like the innumerable indie rock songs filling the soundtrack with emotional cues, opts for a shortcut to sentimentality - dousing the flotsam ridden pool with chlorine, if you will.

Leigh's ultimate decision is made not so much on her own as by another character's decision - the best friend of Little Jason in an act not to be revealed. This could have suggested further cowardice on the part of Leigh, paralysis in the art of thinking for herself, but instead comes across like a forced Turning Point.

All's well that ends well, and Leigh literally drives into a sunset that reflects off her tear-stained face. It seems we are made to believe she has re-found her sense of self and purpose and meaning. But then why does the film close with Leigh looking directly into the camera? Is that just a stab at flashy filmmaking? Or is Leigh asking us what we think?

I think she still might need some therapy.

1 comment:

Derek Armstrong said...

Perfectly stated. This movie is edging around the idea of being good, but not really getting there.