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Lifeguard, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Drowning in misplaced priorities."
2 stars

SCREENED AT SUNDANCE USA 2013: It is, almost undoubtedly, a sign of encroaching middle-age that the first thing that annoyed me about "The Lifeguard" was the way that the characters not even a full generation younger than me acted. But I figured, hey, I watch movies about different cultures all the time; just treat them like they're from some weird European country that has "Connecticut" and "Vermont" as place names. Do that, and, well, it's still not a very good movie, but at least it got a fair shot.

29-year-old Leigh London (Kristen Bell) has always been a smart and capable young woman, and she's slowly working her way up to better assignments for a New York newspaper, but this June has been rough - a story that shook her badly was treated as something lightweight, and the editor she'd been seeing has gotten engaged to someone else. So, she packs up her things (and her cat) and heads back home to Connecticut, where she moves back into her old bedroom, reconnects with friends Todd (Martin Starr) and Mel (Mamie Gummer), and returns to her old summer job as a lifeguard at the community pool. She also starts hanging out with the son of the maintenance man, Jason (David Lambert), and his friends who want drop out of high school and move to Vermont - which doesn't impress her mother Justine (Amy Madigan) or Mel's husband John (Joshua Harto) much at all.

Writer/director Liz W. Garcia doesn't necessarily have a bad set-up here, even if a viewer doesn't particularly have to strain to see how what sort of parallels she's making between characters running away from their fears and other problems. The trouble is, a lot of the pieces don't seem to fit together: We're told that Leigh has always excelled, for instance, and part of the conclusion depends on her being pretty good at the job she walked away from, but we never see that. Coming from the other direction, she's almost thirty; is this particular set of disappointments really the first or worst she's encountered? Plus, there's a sequence that doesn't make a lot of sense unless she hasn't had this job before, since Garcia doesn't seem to be trying to point out that she's over-romanticized that time in her life. There's similar issues with Jason, although they can be chalked up to differing perspectives.

The casting doesn't help, in some ways - Bell may not quite be able to play teenagers any more, but it can at times be easier to associate her character with the kids than the other adults, especially when she's standing next to the much-taller Lambert. It's fortunate that looking wrong (or, perhaps, too right) for the part doesn't preclude a quality performance; while Bell doesn't get much chance to show Leigh's purported intelligence, she does well at making her immaturity palatable. Without it being a major or remarked-upon thing in the script, she seems to feel certain things more strongly than other people, such that it's something of a burden.

The rest of the cast is all right, with Lambert actually doing a good job of making Jason both simple and interesting enough to tempt Leigh at this point; he gets across the teenager who hasn't figured anything out yet without making it seem particularly virtuous or pitiable. Most of the rest are filling spaces - Mamie Gummer and Martin Starr as Leigh's friends at their own in-between points, Alex Shaffer and Paulie Litt as the guys talking about heading to Vermont with Jason. Joshua Harto and Amy Madigan execute somewhat thankless roles - the adults talking sense unpleasantly enough that one's sympathies may remain with Leigh - as well as you'd hope.

There's just not a lot here - the lifeguard job is specifically so that Leigh can do nothing, which makes for a dull movie at times: There's a lot of Leigh being fairly idle with a frustrating amount of the film's important events happening off-screen, and what is shown is often tough to buy into. And then, at the climax of the film, Garcia pulls out something that probably deserves a lot more weight than she gives it, especially considering how minor Leigh's issues seem in comparison. Instead, this thing which could do with a lot more build-up and time spent on its repercussions winds up a cheap trick to quickly get Leigh from point A to point B with minimal consequences (and possibly using a certain double-standard with little examination of it).

In actual fact, one can't just ignore how this is about an adult moving back into her old bedroom and look at how well that story is told; even if that doesn't hit the viewer in his or her Grumpy Middle-Aged "when things got hard for me I sucked it up and used that to drive me forward" Person gut, it does seem to show just how out of whack both the main character's and the story's priorties are, and this movie isn't nearly self-aware enough to make it work.

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originally posted: 02/03/13 10:02:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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  30-Aug-2013 (R)
  DVD: 08-Oct-2013


  DVD: 08-Oct-2013

Directed by
  Liz W. Garcia

Written by
  Liz W. Garcia

  Kristen Bell
  Mamie Gummer
  Martin Starr
  Alex Shaffer
  Amy Madigan
  David Lambert

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