Friday, September 2, 2016

Kicking and Screaming: The Lifeguard

Kristen Bell in The Lifeguard.

In The Lifeguard, Kristen Bell plays Leigh, a not-quite-thirty-year-old who, reeling from linked disappointments in her Manhattan journalistic job and in her personal life – she feels that her contributions are undervalued at the paper and her editor, whom she’s been sleeping with, turns out to have another, more serious romantic attachment – decides to leave New York. She returns to the small Connecticut town where she grew up, moves in with her parents (Amy Madigan and Adam LeFevre), and gets back her old job as a lifeguard at a community pool. Leigh thinks she’s retrenching, but she’s actually retreating. She reconnects with her best friends from high school, Mel (Mamie Gummer), who’s now vice-principal and married to John (Joshua Harto), and Todd (Martin Starr), who’s gay and single. When Leigh starts to hang out with a pair of disaffected teenagers, Little Jason (David Lambert), the son of the pool maintenance man, Big Jason (John Finn), and his friend Matt (Alex Shaffer), who are making plans to quit school and move to Maine, Mel and Todd, too, get caught up in the seductive limbo of not-quite-adolescence, not-quite-adulthood. Mel is nervous about compromising her authoritarian status vis-à-vis the boys, especially when Todd and Leigh agree to buy beer for them and ask them to score them some pot in return. But Mel is experiencing her own terrors about moving on with her life: though she and John have been trying to get pregnant, suddenly she gets cold feet, worried that she’s inadequate to take on motherhood. Her realization that Leigh and Little Jason have become lovers puts her in an untenable position, and she responds hysterically. For Leigh, the affair is the most radical turn in her defiance of the clock and a sort of glue that makes it harder than ever for her life to get unstuck.

The movie, which was written and directed by Liz F. Garcia (who’s married to Harto) was released briefly in 2013 but snuck right by me; I caught up with it only recently, on the advice of a friend. (Garcia had done some TV work, but this was her debut feature.) It belongs to an odd but affecting genre of movies that we might call delayed coming-of-age pictures and that has attracted some very talented directors: Fellini in I Vitelloni, Barry Levinson in Diner, Gabriele Muccino in The Last Kiss, and, in a lighter vein, Noah Baumbach in Kicking and Screaming. (Both Diner and The Last Kiss pay homage to I Vitelloni; Fellini invented the genre, and he set the bar high – his film is an indisputable masterpiece.) All of these movies are about characters who are fighting to keep from embracing adulthood, long after biology has made the decision for them. What makes The Lifeguard different from the others is that it focuses on the erotic draw of adolescence, when all the other sweet-tasting illicit pleasures, like skipping school and getting drunk and smoking weed, are tinged with sex – in a way, they’re metaphors for it. When Todd makes a pass at Matt (a very bad idea that compounds Matt’s trapped feeling and franticness about getting away from this town), it’s implied that what he’s attracted to is the excitement of his own burgeoning sexuality when he was Matt’s age. Even if he was out in high school, it’s hard to believe that he got to act on his feelings, and now, rounding thirty, he’s still unattached. Leigh doesn’t seek out a sexual relationship with Little Jason – it’s he who comes on to her – but though its transgressive nature makes it perilous for her (and, of course, unwise), sleeping with a sixteen-year-old boy is a hell of a lot easier than negotiating a romance with a man not much older than she is who is not only her supervisor but is in love with someone else.

David Lambert in The Lifeguard.

The first twenty minutes or so of the film ambles and feels a little like navel-gazing; I wasn’t sure I’d like it, but the performances are so striking (there isn’t a missed opportunity in the bunch) that I stayed with it until the writing seemed to catch up with the acting. Almost everyone I know loved Bell in the TV show Veronica Mars, but she has yet to get the praise she deserves for movies like Hit and Run (where she gave an expert, tricky comic performance) or even the Veronica Mars movie. What she pulls off in The Lifeguard, the way she negotiates contradicting emotions, is really difficult and complex, especially in her scenes with David Lambert, who may be the best young actor I’ve encountered since the halcyon days of Friday Night Lights. The Louisiana-born Lambert has a moody, inchoate quality but at the same time a fearless emotionality: a scene in which he makes a discovery that sends him into a tailspin (it’s one time when Leigh, who is next to him, instinctively reacts like a grown-up and tries to protect him) has an unfiltered rawness that makes you think of the early Method movie stars, especially Montgomery Clift, though he has an edge that Clift didn’t have. Starr is as good here as he was playing opposite Blythe Danner in I’ll See You in My Dreams, and in her best scenes – the ones with Harto as her loving but increasingly exasperated husband – Gummer is as impressive as Bell. Shaffer’s waywardness and implosiveness play effectively against Lambert’s more tender kind of intensity; both of them touch your heart, but you can see that Matt, for all his insolence and claim to being daring, is the one who’s doomed. Leigh’s parents take opposite approaches to dealing with her thirty crisis: her father is sweetly indulgent while her mother becomes increasingly concerned and impatient. Madigan and LeFevre do a lovely job with these ancillary roles.

The movie is full of surprises because Garcia refuses to present the characters in conventional terms. If you’re determined to see a thirty-year-old woman who goes to bed with a boy half her age as a sexual predator, then The Lifeguard isn’t for you; the movie insists on a broader range of possibilities for understanding what happens between Leigh and Little Jason. When, at the end of the picture, Mel apologizes to Big Jason for not protecting his son, Big Jason, who has refused to press charges or even to acknowledge publicly that anything happened between Leigh and Little Jason, replies that his son has had to deal with real problems in his life and getting laid isn’t one of them. (I assumed the reference was partly to the unexplained absence of his mother.) Finn does subtle and affecting work in the small part of Big Jason, whose laconic gruffness misleads us into thinking that he cares less about his son than he does. (We find out we may have misjudged him when we see how he handles Little Jason’s grief.) This movie has both sensitivity and sensibility. Garcia (who is currently finishing a new movie) should be on everybody’s radar.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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