Written & Directed By: Liz W. Garcia
The Lifeguard is a completely heartbreaking and honest indie gem. It attracted me initially as an interesting character examination and something a bit different for Ms. Bell. It exceeded expectations. When embarking on the journey with our characters it held so much more raw emotion and grim and unsettling perspective. You go from witnessing a rough patch to having complete empathy for our characters, feeling it all with them as the anxiety and dread build. It’s almost unbearable to see how things pile up and only seem to be getting worse for our already very lost and scared characters. We realize this is life. This isn’t just our confused protagonist; it’s everyone, young and old. No one really knows what’s right, but we all struggle for the answers among the chaos.
Leigh (Bell) has always had everything figured out. She graduated as the valedictorian of her class, thriving and ready to grab hold of the future. Fast forward 10 years she’s a journalist in New York City, coming far from her small town upbringing. It all means nothing without her happiness or any sense of understanding. Knowing she needs a change Leigh abandons her job and city life to move back in to her parent’s home at 29. She holds on desperately to having the remainder of the year before she’s 30. She knows she’s backtracking out of confusion, but the thought of simply remaining where she is without trying to find something more is more terrifying than how this might look like failure to others. Her parents aren’t thrilled about this, but try to allow her some time.
Leigh reconnects with her old high school friends and even takes on her old high school job as a lifeguard at the local pool. She even befriends some new friends, including 16 year-old Jason (Lambert) and his restless high school buddies. They’re very much in the same place she was, desperate to get out of town and start their lives. She wants to guide Jason, to share her melancholy wisdom so he doesn’t make the same mistakes she did. Leigh and Jason seem to connect out of sadness and feeling misunderstood. Leigh jokes that she’s “sucking up his youth like a vampire”. It’s partially a chance for her to revisit her youth, but it’s cathartic and reflective for them both. They’re there for another in a very unexpected way.
This was a fantastic move for Kristen Bell, very different from roles that she’s played recently. It’s a stripped down, back to basics, painfully emotional role for her. I would argue it’s her best since Veronica Mars. There’s something about her character and the film that feels very organic and genuine, which makes it that much more painful to watch as it’s a fairly bleak tone throughout. It was wonderful to see Martin Starr in such strong, dramatic material. It showed his range and that he can be far more than just the awkward comedic sidekick. This just adds another layer to his potential as an actor.
Mamie Gummer’s performance is full of rich subtly to show us even once you do “figure things out”, holding it together can be so very fragile. Her character is trying to play her part and put on a happy face, but it just makes her realize she’s just as lost as Leigh. David Lambert (The Fosters) does an incredible job and hits so many crucial elements as Jason. He comes off as the typical rebellious and angry teenager, eager to get away and never look back. Most of us have been there. There is a lot more pain and darkness surrounding his friends and him than it seems at first glance. He shows a certain spark in him with equal amounts of wreckage within. There’s an odd energy between Bell and him that almost shouldn’t be there, yet has a way of feeling so fitting. He definitely holds his own again Bell, which is pretty impressive among this material.
There has been a lot of criticism on several elements of the film, which is a bit troubling to me. I hope people are able to take the film for what it is and soak it all in. There are complaints that it could have been better as a quirky comedy, but to me that would have been wasting the film’s potential. The dramedy is not an easy balance to tackle; often one element is sacrificed for the other. This is a dreary film with little peaks of light throughout. The whole point is that people are struggling to be more carefree and lighthearted and can’t seem to find their way back there. It is a bit depressing, but it’s refreshing that it is an honest exploration. There is hope and compassion in sight. It just takes a while to sort through everything to get there. Another major complaint among viewers is the taboo relationship between Leigh and Jason. I don’t think it is condoning this type of relationship or claiming it’s healthy, but it also isn’t treating it as black and white. The film recognizes it as something ultimately not right for either of these characters, but it’s also necessary in finding themselves again. In some ways, it’s a way to reverse the roles. At times Jason shows more maturity than Leigh does and they’re indulging in each other as they try to figure out the rest.
The Lifeguard captures fear among nearly every character no matter their age or their stage in life. Everyone is so scared; of life, of failure, of being trapped, of not rising to their own expectations. It’s easier to make excuses than to really face it and let yourself be vulnerable. We only have one life to live. To make that a life worth living isn’t always an easy task. Actually it hardly ever is with so many burdens and things crippling your carefree joy and ambition. We forget that happiness in life is really the most important thing, more so than our job, income, or others’ perceptions of you. That isn’t always something easy to come by and everyone has a different route to get there. Sometimes we have to take several steps back before we can move forward and tackle life again. The Lifeguard allows us to take this journey with our troubled, but good natured characters and gets us to step away from the film with some added perspective.