MRR Review: "The Lifeguard"

Photo Credit: Screen Media Films

MRR Review: "The Lifeguard"

Rating: R (strong sexuality, brief graphic nudity, drug use, language, and a disturbing image)
Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 19, 2013
Directed by:Liz W. Garcia
Genre: Drama/Romance

Hollywood rarely takes young women seriously, but "The Lifeguard" is a startling take on an ordinary story, and it is such a surprise that audiences are left wondering if the impact was accidental. Written and directed by TV veteran Liz W. Garcia, known for her work on "Cold Case" and "Memphis Beat," it's the story of yet another panicked young woman running from real life and the damage she causes on her way to rock bottom. Unfortunately, the movie never really gets there, but that may be why it's so thought provoking.

The audience-friendly vibe of the networks appears to have followed Garcia to her big screen debut. For all the problems this plotline would create in reality, the characters wind up with happy enough endings. What they experience isn't gilded over, however, lending this movie a special touch that isn't expected when you look at the posters.

Unsuspecting audiences walk into the theater having seen a smiling blonde in a bathing suit, ready for lifesaving at the local pool. Set against an ethereal glow, she could be angel. This pool could be heaven. Little do viewers expect her to be the source of so much pain for other people. "The Lifeguard" does its best to look like a comedy—and billed as such in some areas­—when it's a drama. It's not lighthearted either.

The movie opens as Leigh (Kristen Bell, "Veronica Mars") finds out the man she's seeing has gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend. She's struggling as a New York reporter, and her love life hasn't gone as expected. In denial, she runs home to her parents and gets a job as a lifeguard at the condo's pool. Not so coincidentally, this is the same job she had in high school.

At this point, a large portion of the audience may connect with Leigh. No one wants to grow old and face their failings. Many people wish they could go back home or at least grow young again. Many of the younger generations have done just this over the past ten years. Given the economy in the early 2000s, quite a few graduates left college and couldn't find jobs, so they moved back in with their parents. Some of them probably acted like teenagers too, at least for a while.

The problem is that Leigh isn't a teenager. She's nearly 30, and what she does during the rest of the film is nothing short of alarming. It's a delicious element in the strip that turns the audiences on their heads. For as many headed home to their parents, few would have gone to the extremes that this main character does. Even viewers who have snickered over teachers getting caught with a male student may leave "The Lifeguard" cringing.

Leigh soon hooks up with two old high school friends who still live in town. One is the assistant principal of their old school and is struggling with a difficult marriage. The other is struggling with his own sexuality and a business that won't quite take off the ground. They band together with a few misfit kids. Pretending to be cooler, hipper, and more mature than she is, Leigh latches on to one of those kids, starting a fast and furious sexual relationship with sixteen-year-old Jason (David Lambert, "Aaron Stone").

Suddenly it's clear to her cohorts that this trip home, this trip down memory lane, and this reclaiming of youth has nothing to do with being free or free spirited but of being desperate to avoid her real life. Worse, they realize that the results of the actions she's inspired them to take—and the consequences they'll face because of them—mean nothing to her. This takes a turn for the worse for nearly all her friends, especially for those most impressionable. It almost doesn't matter that by the end of the movie no one has lost a spouse, or a job, or wound up arrested.

Some would say other movies have done this story better. "The Good Wife," for instance, portrayed Jennifer Aniston as a woman nearing her thirties who got involved with a young man for similar reasons. That situation resulted in pregnancy, degradation, and suicide. Strangely, "The Lifeguard" is adept at creating a creep factor that wasn't found in that movie. Aniston's character walked away looking like an unfortunate victim while Leigh's story plays out differently. Everything might turn out unbelievably—and undeservedly—good in the end, but audiences will leave the theater mulling over Leigh's decisions and holding her responsible for them.

Rating: 3 out of 5