The Lifeguard Review: You Can’t Always Go Back Home

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Kristen Bell proves a capable lead in this official selection from Sundance, but the all-too-familiar tale of arrested development, lost youth, and life’s harsh realities fails to break any new ground.

There’s a point in all of our lives where we realize things haven’t exactly gone according to plan.  For Kristen Bell’s Leigh, its on the brink of her 30th birthday.  Leigh has moved away from her small town in Connecticut to pursue a journalism career in Manhattan and, suffice it to say, it isn’t the girl-in-the-big-city life she’d hoped for. Her job at the Associated Press isn’t as glamorous as she thought it would be, she seems to have very few friends, and her love life is composed of sleeping with her engaged boss.  So, after enough sh*t has hit the fan, she decides to head back home.

Leigh doesn’t just move back in with her parents, though.  She fully regresses into the life she had when she was in high school.  She takes up her old summer job being a lifeguard at a local condominium complex, and engages in some wild behavior with some skater kids who now inhabit her town.  Her two old friends Mel and Todd (Mamie Gummer and Martin Starr) accompany her with a mixture of worry and fascination, curious to see their friend and former class valedictorian at this new stage in her life.

For a while, the film mostly centers around Leigh moping and losing herself in her former youth.  Then, about halfway through, things take a strange turn when Leigh starts up a tawdry romance with the pool manager’s sixteen-year-old son.  This part of the story is a little hard to swallow.  Both Leigh and the boy in question–nicknamed Little Jason–come off as drifters who aren’t really sure of their place, so it makes sense that they might find some sort of solace in each other.  Still, their relationship never really stirs anything up in Leigh that might cause her to make a change.  There’s never a moment where it’s used as a catalyst for her to reevaluate her life choices, or as an opportunity for a new perspective.  All in all, it just seems like another tool for her to further escape from her troubles, and is therefore a largely ineffective plot device.

The idea of someone returning to the simpler, more carefree time of one’s youth is nothing new.  It can be seen in films like Young Adult and, more directly, last summer’s Hello I Must Be Going.  What these films were more adept at was elevating their characters’ return home into a grander message about life and growing up.  Here, writer-director Liz W. Garcia merely seems to be saying, “life can really suck, no matter how old you are.”  I’m not saying that everything has to have a supremely happy ending, but The Lifeguard takes a long time to come to this rather mundane realization.

There are several positives, however, that keep the film somewhat afloat.  Both Bell and Gummer turn in strong performances that truly suck you into their inner crises.  Gummer, in particular, has a very interesting subplot involving her disillusionment with her own seemingly perfect life.  The question posed is: does Leigh’s return awaken Mel into realizing she has a hapless marriage, or is Leigh merely dragging Mel down with her into the darkness?  Had this been more of a focal point of the film, it could have been made a great deal more compelling.

Additionally, there is somewhat of a surprise twist towards the end that really does pack an emotional punch.  It allows for there to be a resolution of sorts for our deeply flawed characters, but in all honesty it arrives too late. The Lifeguard deals with a lot of engaging topics, but had it been able to raise its themes past the typical indie-movie trappings then perhaps it would have felt a little less shallow.  Grade: B-

The Lifeguard is available now on VOD and will be in theaters August 30th.


By Mike Papirmeister

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