A year-round California lifeguard, Rick Carlson (pre-gray Sam Elliott) has resisted the pull of others’ expectations longer than most of us do. But in the 1976 quiet character study Lifeguard, set during the summer of his 15-year class reunion, he finally wrestles to answer the perennial questions: What do you want? Where are you going? What are you willing to do to get there?
These are especially challenging questions for Rick, because he’s still not sure he needs to ask them. His life works for him: the chaotic summers are fun, summoning both familiar and fresh faces to his beach, yet he likes the peaceful winters more. “It gets so quiet out there,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m the last man on earth.” But while this might be enough for him, it’s not working for those who care about him. Tina (Sharon Clark), a stewardess friend who drops by for quickie layovers, is technically satisfied lying next to him in the afterglow, but she wants what she knows he can’t give her. “You don’t feel anything,” she says. She wants someone to love who will love her back. “Your problem is, you want everything,” he says.
While it’s tempting to pigeonhole Rick as a loner cad, a basic life is not the same as a shallow one. He has not so much settled, as embraced the basic mess and injustice of life. Yes, his job calls for saving the occasional life, but most often he’s just the enforcer on the beach, telling flashers to zip their pants, getting peeping toms out of the ladies room, etc. “Man you’re gonna see stuff you’re not gonna believe,” he tells young Chris (Parker Stevenson), his green beach co-pilot on summer weekends. “Funny thing is, by the end of the summer, it’ll all seem normal.” Like a cop or a waiter, he comes in contact with all types all the time, and he’s learned to embrace the weird beauty in it.
Others are less appreciative. A dinner at home with Mom and Dad ends badly because cutbacks have his father (George Wallace) fearful of losing his pension after 23 years of service. When he complains it’s not fair, Rick replies, “Who said the world’s gotta be fair?” While an insight into the lifeguard’s worldview, this self-protective retort also sets Rick’s father off in a new direction. Infuriated that his son stubbornly wants to continue as a lifeguard, he says, “You know, it’s crazy, I still wonder what you’re gonna be when you grow up.”
Does Rick wonder, too? It’s hard to tell. This particular summer finds him breaking some of his own rules — as when he relents and has sex with a minor who frequents his beach, 17-year-old Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan), a straight-A girl looking for AP credit in love. He also considers a change in career, laid at his feet by an old high school buddy (Stephen Young), who co-owns a Porsche dealership. When Rick interviews with the dealership’s money man, it’s hard to know whether to root for him to get the gig or not, as he already told Chris that the beach was better than selling encyclopedias. Is selling fancy cars so different? The interviewer comes on tough, but Rick sets him straight, explaining that the “blond Adonis image” is no longer accurate. “I do more PR work out on that beach in a summer day than you do here in a month,” he says — and gets the job. He just doesn’t know if he wants to take it.
Meanwhile, divorcee Cathy (Anne Archer), his old high school girlfriend, thinks it’s a no-brainer. The pair reunite at their reunion and quickly fall into old habits, like sleeping together. Back then, she was “a nice girl. That’s a different kind of sexy,” he recalls. When she asks him to stay over that first night, he declines. A one-night fling feels wrong with her, he says, so she asks him to dinner the next night, and then the night after that. Soon Cathy is ready to make Rick a permanent part of her life, but it seems she desires, perhaps requires, a few changes. “You’re not gonna stay at the beach the rest of your life, are you?” she asks as they lie in bed. No, he says, but he’s also not sure pushing Porsches is the right next move.
At summer’s end, he turns down the sales job, much to Larry’s disappointment. Frustrated, Larry points out that Rick is passing up a hell of an opportunity. Clearly thinking of Cathy, Rick acknowledges that he may be passing up far more than that. Will Cathy tire of his permanent status in a world so many of us view as temporary and seasonal? Will she move on because Rick refuses to, or will he get what Tina wanted — someone to love who will love him, just as he is? Though Rick doesn’t seem optimistic, nonetheless he makes his choice, telling us all we need to know about this particular lifeguard.