The Lifeguard deals with the discouraging feeling of going nowhere and the urge to flee home for comfort. It’s a circumstance that some of us may be all too familiar with; especially those who are fresh out of their post-secondary education. Liz W. Garcia’s film, however, gets very little right about events that take place after the retreat to a personal turf.
Garcia is able to capture that initial awkwardness that ensues when returning home after being away for so long. Kristen Bell plays troubled Leigh – admirably taking a riskier role than usual – and sinks into a position that calls on her to be a 29-year-old journalist who likes the idea of reliving carefree days. The “real world” is not appreciating her, and she captures that essence of defeated strandedness well.
Another quality Bell and Garcia succeed with is during those first meet ups with old friends. Todd (played by Martin Starr) is comfortably coasting by and Mel (played by Mamie Gummer) is a high school vice principal. An introduction to Mel at her school is used to smoothly transition into an adult after school social. Garcia has a cast who convincingly click with each other. It’s very easy to believe this friendly gang has a history.
I got a lot of vibes from The Lifeguard that I did when I watched Jason Reitman’s Young Adult. The only difference is that Garcia’s study on people who won’t allow the past to rest didn’t make my ears steam out of anger as I did during Reitman’s absolutely unlikeable, misguided dark comedy. The Lifeguard did make me cross though. It put a bad taste in my mouth as I waited for ages for any of the allegedly levelheaded characters to speak up.
The problem is that Garcia lets Leigh’s bad decisions go on for too long. Outside of catching up, one of Mel’s 16-year-old students (Jason played by David Lambert) catches Leigh’s eye. As she finds herself recollecting her years as a teenager, Mel and Jason spend lots of time with each other and soon form a relationship that becomes less hidden as more friends witness the attachment.
All signs of a character study or of a coming-of-age film are thrown out as the scenarios prolong and stay pedophilic, making any sympathy towards Bell’s character evaporate.
There are two voices of reason: Mel and Mel’s husband, John. When Mel sees the sketchiness while smoking pot, she mentions it to Leigh and warns her of what she would have to act upon as a vice-principal. Leigh tells her she’s stoned, and Mel shrugs and forgets she brought it up.
How about John? Can he talk any reason into anyone? Perhaps, but Joshua Harto has been directed to play John as an irritating bellowing hothead and Mel keeps insisting he needs to chill out – he does while scoffing.
Can I, the aggravated viewer, talk sense into anyone? I tried, but the movie couldn’t hear me through the screen.
The Lifeguard is the type of movie where every character will make you want to shake them while telling them to smarten up. Around these moments where no one brings up the obvious, Garcia stretches scenes out of rambling lollygagging that’s supposed to add realism to hanging out. It only made me impatient.
The film also does that thing run-of-the-mill independent movies do which is play hazy indie music over cutaways of these people being free spirited and happy to persuade movie goers into thinking what they’re watching is of substance or depth. A few of these are fine. They stabilize just how unknowing these people really are and how they live in the moment. The Lifeguard has too many of these to suit a film that was doing everything it could to bring me out of a filthy funk.
After waiting and waiting, consequences are finally welcomed in. That said, these bits of redemption happen within the last 15 minutes of the movie. They occur way too late to turn anyone’s negative perceptions around.
Liz W. Garcia’s The Lifeguard does so much wrong that otherwise smother the snippets of truth in the silver lining of the movie. It’s a major misfortune in something that could’ve been effortlessly relatable.