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The Lifeguard

2013 | 90 min | R

The Lifeguard


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Theatrical release date

 30 August, 2013
 24 February, 2014

Country of origin

 United States



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The Lifeguard Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, August 29, 2013

In the future, someone will unearth a copy of “The Lifeguard” and know exactly what the state of indie film was in 2013. Slavish to cliché and trends, the picture sums up the best and worst aspects of the HD moviemaking scene, making for an unsteady viewing experience, positively exasperating at times. The lone bright spot is Kristen Bell, who’s allowed to holster her lackluster attempts to conquer the screen as a comedienne, trying on a dark drama for size. The fit’s a little loose, but the actress reveals impressive range with this challenging role, helping to snap writer/director Liz W. Garcia out of the fog of absurdity she seems determine to remain in.

A burgeoning journalist for the Associated Press in New York City, Leigh (Kristen Bell) struggles to secure a failing love affair with her editor and the balance the pressures of a cramped city, deciding one day to abandon her poisonous routine and return to the suburbs, moving back in with her parents, Justine (Amy Madigan) and Hans (Adam LeFevre). Taking a job as a lifeguard for a condo community, Leigh is immediately relieved to be free of responsibility, trying to persuade estranged high school pals Todd (Martin Starr) and upstanding educator Mel (Mamie Gummer) to follow her into a spiral of regression, downing beers and smoking weed. At the pool, Leigh meets teen Jason (David Lambert), a loner type with skate punk friends, with the two bonding over a shared perception of loneliness, soon evolving into a sexual relationship. Awakened by this intimate attention, Leigh’s spirits are boosted. However, the reality of such a pairing causes great discomfort with friends and family, leaving the lifeguard to face unhappiness on her own.

“The Lifeguard” is a story about maturation and the panic of a quarter-life crisis. These are familiar but fertile topics for a dramatic dissection, capturing the zeitgeist of twentysomething America has it struggles for work and identity in a troubling, increasingly problematical world. Garcia has the right idea, but she’s completely tone-deaf when it comes to execution, always electing the most obvious route when exploring Leigh’s journey of denial, beginning with the writer’s fixation on a tiger that died while locked up inside a tiny NYC apartment. It’s one thing for Leigh to identify with the tiger’s claustrophobic existence, its broken instinct, yet the director has the lead character feeling the panicked claw marks in a window sill, staring out despondently from behind a cage. There are multiple moments of extreme thematic and symbolic underlining scattered throughout the movie, leaving the audience with little interpretational opportunity, forced fed meaning with a shovel.

Trends are closely adhered to, with an awkward soundtrack of folksy tunes aggressively pumped into the picture, hoping to carry the mood with iffy, on the nose songwriting. HD cinematography is more showy than communicative, always aware of itself when focus should remain tightly on Leigh’s POV. The story of personal dissolution has potential, spotlighting Leigh’s unintentionally self-destructive force as she buries herself in the affair, trying to keep a safe distance from the responsibilities of adulthood, but can’t keep her 29-year-old self from lecturing Jason on the importance of education, trying to prevent her love from dropping out of school and talking off with distraught pal Matt (Alex Shaffer). There’s also distress with her friends, finding Mel troubled with her juvenile behavior, though enlivened by its taboo presence in her ordered life. Mel’s domestic trials are also followed in “The Lifeguard,” providing the feature with a few moments of realism as the frustrated, possibly infertile wife clashes with her disapproving husband, John (Joshua Harto) -- her good judgment clouded by Leigh’s alluring recklessness.

Garcia has ideas, but no clue how to string them together into a heartening statement of emotional vulnerability and responsibility. “The Lifeguard” is disjointed and obviously cleaved down from its original intent, with the final act burning through traumatic incidents carelessly, failing to capture a cohesive arc of tattered enlightenment through humiliation. Tonally, the picture plays somewhat like “Little Children,” with sharp incidents of neediness and raw sexuality poking through the directorial glaze, but the overall event of growth is missing entirely, buried under a rockslide of clichés and misguided directorial ambition.

Starring: Kristen Bell, David Lambert, Mamie Gummer, Martin Starr, Amy Madigan
Director: Liz W. Garcia

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