The Lifeguard (2013)
98 min., rated R.
Kristen Bell has more than just an appealing and quick-witted presence in "The Lifeguard," screenwriter Liz W. Garcia's (TV's "Dawson's Creek" and "Cold Case") feature debut, an indie drama about a soon-to-be thirty-year-old woman learning that you can't go home again. Does that sound familiar? Most recently, Kristen Wiig played a down-and-out thirtysomething playwright returning home to her colorful Atlantic City family in "Girl Most Likely." Melanie Lynskey played a divorced thirtysomething photographer getting her life together at home in last year's "Hello I Must Be Going." Also, in 2011's "Young Adult," Charlize Theron played a divorced thirtysomething author going back home to reclaim her high school boyfriend. All shallow-water similarities aside, "The Lifeguard" works in its own modest, small-scale way and confirms that Bell is more than just that pretty blonde from "Forgetting Sarah Marshall."
Leigh (Bell) is a 29-year-old Associated Press reporter who's over the whole hustle and bustle of Manhattan. To exacerbate her rut, her boss/lover is getting engaged and she gets too attached to her stories, particularly one about a tiger being chained up to an apartment vent. On impulse, she packs her bags (with her cat in tow) and decides to take a leave of absence for a while, returning to her Connecticut hometown and moving back in with her parents (Amy Madigan, Adam LeFevre). Feeling like she needs to take time off, Leigh reunites with old pals Mel (Mamie Gummer), an assistant principal at their former high school where Leigh was the valedictorian, and the closeted Todd (Martin Starr). Meanwhile, Leigh takes back up her high school job as a lifeguard for $9 an hour and gets in close with groundskeeper's son Little Jason (impressive relative newcomer David Lambert), a skater who's ready to drop out of school and move to Vermont with his buddy (Alex Shaffer). How long can this pre-midlife crisis go on for?
Bell is such a natural beauty with charisma to match, so it's refreshing to see her both without a layer of make-up and a bright smile in the opening scene. While Leigh's actions aren't always the most responsible or legal ones (like sleeping with a minor), she's trying to figure herself out, and Bell poignantly essays the flawed but sympathetic protagonist with a rarely seen depth in what might is her best work since TV's "Veronica Mars." Maybe Leigh's May-December romance with Little Jason—a daringly hot and heavy one at that—won't help her grow out of restless adulthood, but it makes her feel young again, if only for a little while. Even if she finds herself in virtually the same place at the end, there's more hope for Leigh. As Mel, Gummer is put into a tricky spot but pulls off the role beautifully as a school authority who's conflicted when she follows Leigh and Todd in hanging out and drinking/smoking with Little Jason and his skater friends. Mel is also faced with problems at home with her husband (Joshua Harto), as they're trying to get pregnant. The rest of the cast makes enough of an impression before the wrap-up, including Starr, whose portrayal of a gay man who hasn't yet come out avoids the easy stereotypes; the always-welcome Madigan, adding shading as Leigh's frustrated mother who struggles getting her own belly-dancing business off the ground; and Shaffer, terrific in "Win Win," bringing dimension to Jason's best friend who's lost his brother.
"The Lifeguard" doesn't head down any newfound path, but under writer-director Garcia's sensitive hand (accented by John Peters' lucid photography), there's no condescension toward its characters, who all feel real and not like sitcom constructs. A startlingly dark incident comes to light in the final act, and instead of it feeling contrived or tacked-on, it brings a moving melancholy to the proceedings. Whether or not you're on the cusp of turning thirty, the film will speak frankly to anyone who has experienced a difficult transitional phase in life like Leigh.
Grade: B -