Amy Miller (Shiri Appleby) is a nice girl. Pretty, friendly, and trusting, she’s the kind of girl bound to be beleaguered in a psycho-stalker movie, in this case, Swimfan. And of course, she has so much to lose: an industrious high school senior, she’s got college options (a vaguely noted “Rhode Island” or Berkeley), loyal friends who hang with her by the lockers, an after-school waitressing job to show how she is both hardworking and admirably working-classish. Plus, Amy’s got a boyfriend, whom she loves and supports completely, because she’s just that nice.
At first this boyfriend, Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford, of the adorable Clockstoppers), also looks nice: cute and good to Amy, he’s a swim team star being scouted for a Stanford scholarship and, after school, dispenses medications at the hospital where his mom works. According to Ben, he owes his current solid standing to Amy, since she helped him through his less nice period, when “a situation with drugs turned into a situation with stealing,” landing him in juvie for six months.
Jesse Bradford, Erika Christensen, Shiri Appleby, Dan Hedaya
(20th Century Fox)
US theatrical: 6 Sep 2002
Having endured that difficulty, now Amy and Ben plan for their future together, repeating much they love one another. Meanwhile, Giles (The Deep End) Nuttgens’ shifty and shadowy camerawork suggests that all this namby-pamby sweetness is about to end. And so: New Girl comes to school, her halo of blond hair, pouty painted lips, and increasingly kohled eyes indicating that she is, indeed, trouble. Madison (Erika Christensen) arrives on the scene just in time to be late for English class and in need of help breaking into her conveniently persnickety locker. Ben obliges, Madison smiles, the filtered light through the hallway windows telegraphs danger! danger!
A few minutes later, after snuggling guiltily with Amy and swimming some laps, he’s headed home in his Jeep. Boom, he nearly hits Madison, who crosses the street in front of him as if out of nowhere. “So sorry!,” he whimpers. One thing leads to another (though it’s very hard to tell how, except that Ben must be the most dim-witted nice boy on earth), and soon he’s showing her how he swims in the pool at night, she’s stripping to her fine underwear, wanting to learn how to swim (pay attention: it will be important later that she doesn’t know how). “I have a girlfriend,” he breathes. She presses up against him, and as they have sex up against the pool wall, she makes him say, “I love you,” even if he doesn’t “mean it.” Idiot boy does as he’s told.
While you know his goose is cooked (as he has no bunny), Ben believes that he will be able to forget his one night of pool sex and return to his nice life as if nothing has changed. But Ben will pay dearly for his few minutes of pool sex, as Madison refuses to “be ignored.” And wouldn’t you know, his feeble efforts to put off Madison—“I think that you’re misunderstanding our relationship in a very fundamental way”—only make her more insistent.
She starts leaving flowers at Ben’s locker, calling him at home, paging him when he’s in serious discussion with his coach (Dan Hedaya, who mostly looks like he walked into the wrong movie), chatting up Amy at mixers, appearing in the boys’ locker room (which is always strangely deserted—where are all the other jocks at this high school?), and sending lots of emails—at least one including a naked photo, which Ben barely hides from lovely, clueless Amy. As the film is named for Madison’s cunning username, you might imagine that this particular mode of stalking gets special treatment: Ben checks his mailbox, the camera zooms in to a computer screen filled with little email-message-envelope emblems, all from “swimfan85.” Cue spooky music.
As if this spamming is not bad enough, Madison stages a sort of home invasion, coming to visit Ben’s mom on her (mom’s) birthday, complete with a bouquet of flowers that outclasses and outsizes his own measly bunch. As it happens, Madison is as wealthy as she is psychotic, though apparently there’s not an adult in sight at the mansion where she lives with her cousin Dante (James Debello), who also happens to be the class outcast (like the other kids, she’s routinely mean to Dante, but she alone deserves to be punished because she’s really mean). Madison’s wealth is mostly a device to mark her difference from Ben and Amy: she can afford designer outfits and an SUV, as well as cello lessons, and most importantly, doesn’t have to work. Taken as a cautionary tale, Swimfan suggests that after school jobs might ward off monstrous obsessions.
It happens that Madison’s obsession with Ben has some vague motivation in her past, though such explanation hardly seems necessary (she’s crazy: check). She tells him that she has a boyfriend waiting for her in New York City, but he’s a vegetable, breathing on a respirator following a car accident; as the nurse ominously tells Ben, Madison was wearing a seatbelt, and for some reason, Veggie Beau was not. Just what this is supposed to tell us about her is not clear: She engineered the accident because she was mad at Veggie Beau? She’s now mentally unstable because of it?
Whatever the case—and it hardly matters—Ben is only finding out about this dark past when it’s way too late. He’s been tossed off the swim team for steroid use (due to Madison’s finagling of urine samples), a teammate (Clayne Crawford) is dead, and Amy won’t speak to him. And still, the film can’t stop. Borrowing from Fatal Attraction again, Charles Bohl and Phillip Schneider’s overheated script crosscuts between two scenes, as Ben noses around in Madison’s background, and she steals his car, wearing a baseball cap so she apparently looks like him, and goes gunning for Amy, riding to work on her bicycle. The tension mounts.
Which is not to say that there’s a single plot point in Swimfan that you can’t see coming a mile away, except, maybe, the one where Madison, arrested, handcuffed, and hauled off in a cruiser, manages to grab a gun off one of her two handler-cops while they’re stopped at a railroad crossing and . . . well, just know that she performs a feat of Terminatoresque dimensions and poor Amy is not yet out of the woods. Then again, at this point you might be inclined to wish her ill too, even if she is nice. Forgiving Ben for his stupidity is one thing; lolling half-conscious in her corny head bandage, in Ben’s bedroom no less, is something else. Appleby’s best-known role, as the nice girl on the tv series Roswell, certainly laid the groundwork for this dullest of girlfriend parts, but there, she was hanging with seductive, perpetually angsty teen aliens. In Swimfan, it’s hard to see the percentage for her. At least Christensen gets to look evil and wily.
No doubt, distributors calculated Swimfan‘s arrival in theaters at the nadir of the film year, when competition is slim to none and most potential viewers are otherwise distracted. This way, its not so fabulous first weekend gross, some $12.4 million, still makes it look like it “won” something, no matter how inconsequential. Careless and exploitative as it is, Swimfan‘s greatest offense may be that it offers so little to its target adolescent audience, retreading a trashy 1987 movie about stupid, selfish adults, battering its viewers with a ridiculous morality coda. Even if adults haven’t learned anything since then, most kids have.