January 29, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ SUNDANCE 2013: “The Lifeguard”


If you go to too many Sundances, or see too many indie films, there are certain templates you come to recognize all too quickly.  THE LIFEGUARD, written and directed by Liz W. Garcia, a TV writer (Memphis Beat, Cold Case) making her directing debut, follows so many of these conventions that it could have been put together from a Do-It-Yourself Sundance kit.

First, take one woman aimlessly entering her thirties, unhappy with her career and her romantic life.  Here she’s Leigh (Kristen Bell).  (Last year she was the heroine of Hello I Must Be Going.)  She might still live in the small town where she grew up, or she might have lived for a while in the big city and returned to her hometown (here it’s the latter); in either case, she’s staying now with her uncomprehending parents.  She has a few friends who are equally stuck in the past as they try to become adults:  closeted gay Todd (Martin Starr) and married, respectable, neurotic high school vice-principal Mel (Mamie Gummer).  Out of a mix of existential crisis and foolish rebellion, our heroine does something rash, with consequences that are unhappy and yet prove necessary for her to take the next step in her life.  Variations, sadly, tend to be minor.

Leigh, as the title indicates, leaves her unsatisfying New York reporter job (and her unsatisfying affair with her engaged boss) to move back to Connecticut and become a local lifeguard, reliving the job she had as a teenager.  Gradually, she drifts into a sexual relationship with Little Jason (David Lambert)–who, it should be noted, is underage but at 16, not really “little.”  This is blissful for a while, but eventually it leads to stress with mom (Amy Madigan) and Leigh’s friends, and Leigh coming to understand that she has to grow up once and for all and leave childish things–and childish lovers–behind.

If a filmmaker is going to follow one of these indie templates, he or she had better have some new spin on the story (for example, Don Jon’s Addiction is also about an adult belatedly coming of age, but no one’s ever told the tale quite that way before).  Otherwise, like The Lifeguard, your movie is just going to feel dull and overly familiar.  Garcia makes very little use of Kristen Bell’s well-proven comedy talent, which could have come in handy, so instead Bell just spends a lot of the movie staring vacantly to express her anomie.  Bell’s character has so little substance that Gummer comes awfully close to stealing the picture in her much smaller role.  The inevitable third act crisis feels tacked on, as though Garcia knew something terrible had to happen to someone to get the plot moving, and threw darts at a board until she hit a character’s name.  The denouement that follows is far too tidy.

The Lifeguard is competently made, with atmospheric photography (by John Peters) that makes good use of the pool and small-town locations.  But the film is, in its own way, as generic and predictable as any Hollywood franchise product, doggedly moving from A to B to C until its alphabet is done and the credits roll.  It never dares to venture into the deep end of its own pool.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."