[29 August 2013]
The massive success of Bridesmaids left some observers with the impression that more girls-behaving-badly comedies would follow, that these might even match the spate of belated coming-of-age stories, usually starring funny 30ish men. For the most part, and with the notable exception of The Heat, the mainstream effects of Kristin Wiig’s movie have yet to manifest. The more immediate ripples have been visible primarily at film festivals, where smaller movies like Hello, I Must Be Going, Afternoon Delight, and now The Lifeguard act as a rebuke to the Type A slapstick heroines of so many romantic comedies.
The Lifeguard closely resembles last year’s Hello, with Kristen Bell in the Melanie Lynskey role of a 30ish woman—actually 29, Bell’s Leigh keeps reminding everyone—moving back to her Connecticut hometown from New York City. In Hello, the move is precipitated by a broken marriage and lack of career prospects. In The Lifeguard, Leigh makes a decision without the impetus of such conventional “failure”. She moves home out of vague frustration. At film’s start, she has a decent job as a journalist with the Associated Press, but abandons it in order to lifeguard at a housing complex’s pool for the summer, just like when she was a teenager.
Leigh pursues this elusive feeling of youth throughout the movie, and she ropes in two of her high school friends who still live in their hometown, Todd (Martin Starr), a closeted gallery worker, and Mel (Mamie Gummer), now an assistant principal at their old high school and trying to conceive a child with her husband John (Joshua Harto). Bell, Starr, and Bummer fill their early scenes together with an easy rapport; in one masterful detail of unconscious aging, Mel reminds an oblivious Leigh that the “good money” she’ll make as a lifeguard is only slightly above minimum age (unspoken directly: Leigh is remembering the much lower minimum wage of her youth).
With this and other moments, the movie provides some insight into the unexpected discomforts brought on by nostalgia. But these soon become overbearing, as writer-director Liz Garcia reminds the audience of her movie’s thesis statement, repeatedly. This lack of confidence in viewers tamps down potential laughs. Bell, snappy and short, can be a winning comedienne, but Garcia gives her dialogue where the movie’s themes are buried just a centimeter or two below the surface. The characters talk about feeling “lost” and “sad”, as if no one could see plainly or even guess at their states of mind.
The visible signs of the dead end of nostalgia are everywhere. Leigh, Todd, and Mel begin to hang out and smoke pot with a group of local skater teenagers (the plot addresses this obvious conflict between Mel’s administrative job and her illicit activities, but haphazardly and nonsensically). During these throwback hangouts in the woods or parking lots, Leigh finds herself drawn to Jason (David Lambert), ostensibly to give him advice about why he shouldn’t drop out of high school. But as her regression becomes less conscious and more instinctive, they grow closer.
Their first physical encounter comes almost exactly halfway through the movie. At that moment, the clinch feels more like a story requirement than a point of character development, and Garcia skips over any explanation of what could make this more than a purely sexual relationship. Throughout the movie, she has trouble defining most of the characters who are outside the age range of her 30somethings; the teenagers, even Jason, remain sketchy, as does Leigh’s mother (Amy Madigan). She spends most of the movie inexplicably seething with barely suppressed rage, a character and performance that seem out of sync with the movie’s attempts at low-key naturalism.
Naturalism and melodrama remain at odds during much of The Lifeguard. In some scenes, the sound design emphasizes the quiet buzz of New England summer; in others, Garcia cues up two or three soundtrack cuts in rapid succession, turning her project from movie to undistinguished mixtape. It’s emblematic of the movie’s approach, as it presents unlikable characters making questionable decisions while holding the audience’s hand and reassuring them that it’s all very sad.