Written and directed by Liz W. Garcia
Coming of age stories have come to multiplexes in different ways this summer. From Mud in the spring to The Kings of Summer, The Way Way Back and The Spectacular Now this summer, these films have proved that the genre doesn’t have to be littered with carbon copies and new entries can add unique touches to familiar territory. Also, these films were excellent and among the strongest of 2013. Now, we have The Lifeguard, which would not be considered a coming-of-age film in the traditional sense but perhaps one in reverse. This is a film about a woman who seemingly has a good life but decides she wants more–or, it might be appropriate to say, less–from her life.
Kristen Bell stars as Leigh, a reporter living in New York in a committed relationship. Leigh seems to be living the life that most people dream of. However, Leigh decides to leave it behind, and picks up and moves back to her hometown in Connecticut. She moves in with her parents and finds herself in her childhood bedroom. This seems to be Leigh’s happy place, one that brings her comfort and ease. Leigh also catches up with some of her friends who never left Connecticut. She spends most of her time with Todd (Martin Starr) and her high school best friend, Mel (Mamie Gummer). Todd is more carefree and ready to entertain Leigh than Mel, who is an assistant principal at the high school, married and hoping to conceive her first child. In other words, Mel grew up and stayed grown up, unlike Leigh. Leigh understands that she will need to work and even falls back into her old job as a lifeguard at a local pool. There she meets interesting characters, including a lost high school student named Jason (David Lambert). Her relationship with Jason is seemingly innocent and flirtatious, but things take a sharp turn when Leigh and Jason begin an affair that gives the film a bit of a darker edge.
The problem with The Lifeguard is not with its lack of originality, because by no means does this film offer viewers anything new. The movie has a unsettling, melancholy tone for almost the entire duration that doesn’t make it much of a likable experience. Leigh is not a very sympathetic character and the script makes it hard to empathize with a character who doesn’t have much reason to give up her life in New York City to slide backwards into her high school life. There is never a point in the film where it’s possible to empathize with Leigh. With that being said, Bell is quite strong here. She’s a beautiful and charming actress whose film work has often been forgotten or disregarded due to the projects she has chosen. Though she will always be known for Veronica Mars and is very good on Showtime’s House of Lies, Bell has been in too many bland romantic comedies to be considered a strong film actress. Everything that’s unlikable about Leigh, Bell conveys and when any frustration inspired by Leigh’s self-involved actions is a true testament to the actress.
The Lifeguard is director Liz W. Garcia’s first effort in feature films and one could hope that she can improve upon this effort. The film is not without its few sharp moments giving some promise to a stronger future for Garcia’s career in film. Those sharp moments of dialogue are few and far between and any interest in the movie has evaporated by then. As for Bell, this was a small leap in a different direction for her film career. Hopefully, she continues to choose different projects;The Lifeguard isn’t a strong film, but it’s a step down the right path.
The Lifeguard opens August 30 in limited release and is available on VOD.