Thursday, August 1, 2013

Daring To Be Different . . . And Present The Awkwardness Of The Real World, The Lifeguard (Largely) Succeeds!

The Good: Good acting, Interesting characters, Decent setting
The Bad: Overbearing soundtrack, Mundane and familiar plot
The Basics: Summer’s celebration of indie films finishes with one with real crossover appeal as Kristen Bell and Martin Starr give us something new in The Lifeguard!

We’re down to that time in Summer Blockbuster Season; all of the major studio releases are burned out and there are a handful of indie films that are hoping to get mainstream attention before the September doldrums begin. One of those films is The Lifeguard which seems to need nothing more to sell it than Kristen Bell in a one-piece bathing suit on the movie poster. Hell, it was good enough to get my attention and when I sat down to watch it today, I did so with absolutely no expectations.

So, because I had no expectations, I have no problem beginning this review with my latest rant. What the hell is it with indie movies and soundtracks?! Seriously, do directors and smaller studios think the only way to make their money back on non-mainstream films these days is to pack them with music that will be delivered whether or not it fits the actual film or scene? I mention this at the top of The Lifeguard because after at least two tracks that might not have been horrible on their own (they seem to be telling a decent musical story, albeit, on the nose and similarly in this context) blare over moments in the film that could have been good for helping to characterize the film’s protagonist, Leigh, the movie gets quiet and actually takes the time to develop a mood. While that mood is demoralizing and more than a little unpleasant, the film at least accomplishes something in those moments. So, note to indie filmmakers: stop cluttering your films with so much vocal music that distracts from the tone and feel of your movie! (And a little f-you to Liz Garcia for gutting what could have been the film’s emotionally intense sex scene with a song just robs the moment of its . . . well, moment. Talk about obvious and on-the-nose musical direction!) The Lifeguard does have something to say and by the fifteen minute mark, it is making a statement and it is engaging enough to keep the viewer’s attention.

Leigh is an investigative reporter working in New York City and loathing how her stories, like one about animal abuse involving a tiger kept shackled in an apartment, are buried in the newspaper, so she flees the City and Raj to return to her parents’ house for the summer. Begging for time to rebuild her life and figure out her new priorities, she reconnects with her friends and gets her high school job back working as a lifeguard at the local pool. Sworn at and told off by ten year-olds, Leigh gets annoyed and turn to the son of the pool’s maintenance worker – Little Jason – for companionship. With her adult friend, Todd, Leigh starts to put her life back in order and tries to impress upon Little Jason just how good the area they live in is.

When Leigh confides in Little Jason about how she has been treated and aids the local teenagers in getting the police off their backs, Jason begins to respond to her friendship. Little Jason comes to Leigh’s aid, harassing the ten year-olds who were abusive to her and with the basic connection made, Leigh finds herself developing a serious emotional entanglement with the young man.

Despite the annoying refrain from Leigh about being twenty-nine, instead of thirty, The Lifeguard feels fairly fresh as a very present story of young adults struggling in today’s world. The Lifeguard actually nails head-on the issues today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings face, from struggling at jobs that are little over the pathetically-low minimum wage to dealing with the usual adult struggles that seem all the more daunting without economic security. Leigh, Todd, and Mel are all adults who did what society dictated in terms of getting an education and a good job before they basically discover they were sold a dream that does not allow them to actually succeed. Instead, Leigh does good work as a reporter and is marginalized professionally and personally, Todd remains lodged in the closet, and Mel is stuck in her home town as assistant principal, where she inspires her students less than Leigh does. Mel’s struggle to have a child mirrors Leigh’s attempts to find herself and the benefit Leigh has is that she can open up to Little Jason in a way that she is not able to (though she tries with her husband, who is very reticent).

The Lifeguard struggles to find its footing when it focuses on Mel and her husband, John, though it is no fault of actress Mamie Gummer. While Gummer and her co-star Joshua Harto, who had a more memorable supporting role in The Dark Knight (reviewed here!), have no real on-screen chemistry, the scene feels more like filler. Writer and director Liz W. Garcia seems to be uncomfortable keeping the focus solely on Leigh. When she does, however, she returns the film to something much more watchable.

Like so many films with teens through thirtysomethings, The Lifeguard incorporates weed, though the film earns its “R” rating early on from children swearing pretty vocally at Leigh. Much more impressive than that – or the fact that The Lifeguard is unafraid of male nudity is the acting. Martin Starr, who is easily one of the most reliable go-to actors for “goofy” is intense, articulate and delightfully serious as Todd. From his first shot in the film to his last, Starr gives the viewer something we have not seen from him before. And he rises to the occasion as the serious and realistic sidekick to the fantasy-dominated Leigh.

As for Kristen Bell, she might not present Leigh with the spunk and perkiness of someone like Veronica Mars, but she makes Leigh instantly memorable. Leigh seems somewhat lost without ever appearing stupid or girlish. She and co-star David Lambert have wonderful on-screen chemistry (how Dax Shepard could ever watch this film is something of a mystery!) and they sell the risqué relationship without making it seem at all creepy or predatory. More than just looking good in a swimsuit, Bell delivers a strong performance in the quiet moments when she emotes Leigh's loss and sense of personal desperation and the camera settles on her to capture her eyes and mouth expressing those emotions.

Amy Madigan gives her usual solid and impressive performance without being creepy. She makes Leigh's mother seem like she should; a well-rounded, actualized character in her own right completely independent of Leigh's narrative.

The Lifeguard is set in a small town in Connecticut and it contrasts beautifully with New York City. The noise and motion of the City is beautifully replaced by quiet (when Garcia doesn’t clutter it with the soundtrack) and actual conversation. The setting helps sell the movie and it is enough to get viewers thinking about all the potentials that will come with going back to school or the end of the summer when the movie hits theaters. Like Dreamland (reviewed here!), the setting plays well to the sense of personal desperation with the characters who are lost and looking for direction.

Unlike the plethora of dumb comedies, predictable horror movies, or obvious attempts at Oscar contenders that will drop around the same time, The Lifeguard presents a serious and smart film that illustrates well the complexities of young life while still being entertaining.

For other works with Martin Starr, please check out my reviews of:
This Is The End
The Invention Of Lying
The Incredible Hulk
Freaks And Geeks


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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