Sundance '13: Kristen Bell Can't Save 'The Lifeguard' from Drowning
by Ben Pearson
January 22, 2013
I'm a big fan of actress Kristen Bell going all the way back to her days on "Veronica Mars" and her fun role in the under-seen geek movie Fanboys, up to her breakout hit Forgetting Sarah Marshall and more. She has such a great on-screen presence, a natural charm, and is one of the few actresses that can portray perky personalities without being overbearing. But she's not just a one trick pony: Bell is a solid dramatic actress too (see Spartan and her small part in last year's Sundance hit Safety Not Guaranteed), but even with her considerable talents, she couldn't keep the Sundance entry, The Lifeguard, from floundering. Read on!
Bell plays Leigh, a New York reporter about to turn thirty. She's in a secret relationship with a co-worker, but she's unfulfilled because he's seeing other people and her stories are often pushed to the side or completely looked over. She's quickly hit with a one-two punch when her lover gets engaged to someone else and she writes a story about a tiger who died after being trapped in a cramped apartment (metaphor alert!), so Leigh abandons ship and heads back to her hometown. She moves back in with her parents, takes her old job of being a lifeguard at a local neighborhood pool, and meets Jason (David Lambert), a seventeen-year-old greaser kid who lives near the pool.
As if you couldn't guess what happens next, a love affair blossoms between the two that threatens Leigh's break from the troubles of real life. She and her old townie friends Mel (Mamie Gummer) and Todd (Martin Starr) hang out with Jason and his punk buddies, smoke weed, and regress back into a state of adolescence, which causes marriage troubles for Mel and her husband John (Joshua Harto). Mel and John's storyline is secondary but is actually more compelling than Leigh's, since Mel is an assistant principal at Jason's high school (so people discovering her recent extracurricular activities could get her in trouble). She and John are also trying to get pregnant, so John doesn't like the fact that Mel is drinking, smoking, and generally acting like a child. Eventually Leigh's romantic plans begin to come crashing down, causing her to grow up all over again.
Bell does some good work, Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep's daughter) is solid, and Martin Starr is funny as always, but if you saw Melanie Lynskey's Hello I Must Be Going last year, you've already seen the major plot points of this film play out in a much more effective manner. Everything about The Lifeguard feels totally conventional, and since there aren't any real storytelling risks, the results are unfortunately dull. The climax and ending are especially grating, perpetuating negative stereotypes about kids who dress like punk rockers and delivering exactly the conclusion everyone likely predicted when they sat down in the theater.
The film was written and directed by Liz W. Garcia, who got her start in the industry writing episodes of "Dawson's Creek" and "Cold Case." This is her directorial debut, and while she does an adequate job behind the camera, there's nothing that separates this from the dozens of other films with the same plot and themes. Alex and I saw the premiere of Shia LaBeouf's new film The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, and though some of the plot beats in that movie are familiar, director Fredrick Bond gives it enough style to make it feel fresh. There's no doubt that Garcia is passionate about the material, but that passion doesn't translate in the direction; it feels as if she's just going through the motions. I'm not saying that every movie needs to be heavily stylized, but I always prefer to feel a sense of authorship and vision from a director.
The Lifeguard isn't the worst film I've seen at this festival so far (that'd be Virtually Heroes), but it fails to do anything interesting with its premise that hasn't been addressed far better elsewhere already. The story must have spoken to Bell when she read the script, but it's sink or swim in the cutthroat Sundance marketplace and this movie unfortunately drowns.
Ben's Sundance Rating: 3.5 out of 10