To give credit where it's due, "The Lifeguard" is a nicely shot, leisurely paced indie movie about growing older, growing up, and dealing with the changing pressures of "finding yourself" in a world that may often seem hollow and unsympathetic. The performances are mostly solid, with particularly decent efforts from Kristen Bell as 29-year-old disillusioned reporter Leigh, who moves from New York back to her childhood home in Connecticut, where she bunks with her parents, picks up her high school job as a lifeguard at the local pool, and generally attempts to revisit her adolescence, and Alex Schaffer as Matt, one of the trio of equally disillusioned teens Leigh and her friends fall in with over the course of the summer.
I caught this movie on Netflix, so wasn't aware it had been billed as a comedy on release; a weird choice that may have hampered the film, as it contains almost zero comedic elements. It's more in the vein of "American Honey" or other movies that attempt to portray realistically flawed characters making dubious choices in an effort to reaffirm their own identities... and, at least for me, that's where "The Lifeguard" falls flat.
My problems with this movie are chiefly to do with its horrendous double standards, its failure to engage with any of the issues it raises, and its stubborn refusal to have any of the characters show even an ounce of true self-awareness or growth. Each of the adult characters - Leigh, her high school friends Mel (Mamie Gummer) and Todd (Martin Starr), and Mel's husband John (Joshua Harto) - are painfully self-absorbed and seem to only parse the world in terms of how it affects them, perhaps best typified in the scene where Mel wails and frets over needing to be "free" and also nurses her anxiety about whether or not she could be a mother (note: not a good mother, just a mother). These might well be real and vivid concerns for a married 30-something with her own home, car, and career, but the script entirely deprives Mel of any subtlety whatsoever and she, like Leigh, merely comes over as a spoiled and self-obsessed brat; the feminine equivalent of a so-called manchild, who would be more at home poring over quotes about self-actualization on Instagram than living as a functional adult.
Of course, there are many movies that focus on the emotional growth of a manchild, and many movies that attempt to make unlikeable characters interesting. "The Lifeguard" does neither, and it strays into somewhat disturbing territory with the depiction of Leigh's affair with 16-year-old Little Jason (David Lambert). For some reason, Leigh's sexual relationship with a minor almost exactly half her age is portrayed as equal, consenting, and harmless. The sex scenes are shot with focus on Leigh's enjoyment and also her romanticization of the relationship, even though at several points the movie goes out of its way to show us how young and vulnerable Jason is, particularly during the third act, with his raw emotional reaction to the loss of his friend Matt.
As with every single event that occurs in this movie, Jason's breakdown serves only to further something Leigh perceives about herself, and she leaves him being comforted by his father while she does the only bit of vague adulting we ever see her do. The final scene she shares with him involves her giving him money and literally leaving him crying by the poolside. It's a sickening display of self-absorption that plays out while the audience is presumably supposed to be impressed at how Leigh (dressed for the first time in "grown-up" clothes, complete with high heels, in contrast to the swimsuits, tank tops and shorts Bell wears for most of the movie) has matured.
In a movie - and there have been many - depicting an adult man's affair or infatuation with a teenage girl, either as a taboo attraction or a way to recapture his youth, the implicit imbalance of power in such a relationship is always apparent. Think of the scene in "American Beauty" where Lester, on the edge of an encounter with his teenage daughter's friend, backs away and ends up giving her fatherly advice: in that moment, the disturbing reality of the fantasy is brought home to him, and he recoils. Put bluntly, when men in movies pursue teenagers, they are portrayed - and seen by audiences - as predatory, sleazy dirtbags, or pathetic has-beens. By contrast, "The Lifeguard" portrays Leigh as a whimsical girl having a hot summer fling, and at no point assesses or questions her behaviour except in the most minimal way, placing the emphasis on Mel's concern that she should report the affair, or that she may lose her job at the school if it becomes public knowledge.
To cap it off, the movie completely sidesteps any form of repercussion. Leigh leaves Connecticut to pick up her old life, and the relationship with Jason is swept under the rug, with he and his father both refusing to name names. During a scene between Mel and Jason's father at the school, he outright states that "getting laid" is sure to have no effect on his sixteen-year-old son, and he'll be fine. Perhaps this is the movie's way of questioning the endemic minimization of sexual abuse on boys when perpetrated by adult women; perhaps it's just another way for the main character to continue prancing through her charmed life without a single thing to worry about except the fact that she isn't a teenager any more.
It's hard for me to list everything I hated about this movie and its characters. I disliked everything about Leigh from her selfishness to her poor cat ownership, and I hated the fact that the movie seems to condone her self-absorption, never forcing her out of her own introspection to deal with a wider world. The closest it came to this was in the relationship with her mother, where Leigh is apparently surprised that her parents have their own personalities, preferences, and lives. How she made it to nearly thirty while being so oblivious to the fact other humans are people too is mind-bending.
There might be a thoughtful, relatable movie buried somewhere in "The Lifeguard" and, perhaps if the supporting characters had been fleshed out more, or Leigh had been given more of a challenging character arc, it would have been brought to the surface. Unfortunately, for me, this is one piece of self-indulgent rubbish that sinks like a stone.
Action / Drama / Romance
Action / Drama / Romance
29-year-old Leigh is on leave from her job in New York City after feeling a sense of emptiness and sadness in her life. Leigh has returned to her parents' home, to her high school job as a lifeguard and to her high school friends still in town. But Leigh continues to struggle in finding happiness since her parents don't approve and she's bullied by local kids at the pool. Leigh finds an almost like kindred spirit in high school student Little Jason; but when their friendship turns into an illicit relationship, her friends don't approve and even more tragedy awaits Leigh in her personal journey towards happiness.
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March 15, 2016 at 12:59 AM