You can go home again, but you probably shouldn’t. Sometimes, when backed into a corner, we have no choice to retreat in order to regroup, but there’s hardly anything rejuvenating about crawling under the covers in your old bedroom. Liz A. Garcia‘s The Lifeguard indulges its childish main character’s wish fulfillment as a deranged kind of emotional growth where the protagonist can make hypocritical statements to a kid that doesn’t know any better. The only real attempt at character development comes from a desperate dramatic ploy in the film’s final ten minutes that closes out this deluded coming-of-age tale.
Leigh London (Kristen Bell) feels like her life is coming apart. She fell in love with a guy who was already in a relationship, her journalism job for the AP is unfulfilling, and New York City is bringing her down. When she reports on a tiger that died after being shackled in an apartment, Leigh decides she needs to return home to break the shackles of adulthood and return to the freedom of living rent-free in her parents’ house. Back home in Connecticut, Leigh happily takes a minimum-wage job as a lifeguard, hangs out with her old friends Mel (Mamie Gummer) and Todd (Martin Starr), and starts falling for 17-year-old skater, Jason (David Lambert). Meanwhile, in an underdeveloped subplot, Mel feels trapped by her stick-in-the-mud husband, John, (Joshua Harto) because they’re struggling to get pregnant.
For all the film’s close-up profile shots, we never feel any kinship with these characters. On the verge of thirty, Leigh still hasn’t figured out that being an adult is hard, but it can also be far more rewarding than running away from your problems to embrace nostalgia. No one in the movie really chastises Leigh for her decision other than John asking if she had a nervous breakdown (which she basically did). The film meanders around as Leigh doesn’t see her trip home as a vacation, but a “new” life even though she’s going backwards. She then has the gall to tell Jason that he has to look ahead. While The Lifeguard has a few laughs, this moment is played with total seriousness.
Garcia loves to have her characters speak in declarative statements like when Leigh tells Jason, “You can’t just drift.” Since he’s seventeen and has a personality as deep as a thimble, he doesn’t throw this hypocritical, cookie fortune wisdom back in Leigh’s face. He’s not there to challenge her or give her some kind of realization. Garcia treats Leigh and Jason’s relationship as a legitimate, eye-opening romance, but Leigh is simply using the teenager. He’s hot, she’s lonely, and gender roles dictate that this doesn’t qualify as borderline statutory rape (according to Wikipedia, the age of consent in Connecticut is 16, but even then Leigh’s behavior is still kind of pathetic).
The writer-director completely indulges in her character’s phony reawakening. Leigh and Jason take long walks through the woods, bond while getting high, and gaze lovingly at each other when they take a late-night swim in the pool. While all of this is happening, Garcia seems to forget that she was trying to develop a storyline with Mel also trying to come to grips with adulthood and failing. In some ways, Mel has the more compelling storyline since she’s facing a real problem in her marriage, but Garcia reduces the character to nothing more than an underdeveloped mirror of Leigh’s weak storyline. In almost doesn’t matter since none of the characters garner any of our sympathy in the first place.
When I reviewed Mud, I noted the immaturity of the lead characters, and how their coming-of-age story mostly works because their identities are transformed as their adventure develops and changes. The Lifeguard is a far weaker, poorly told tale of an immature human being who barely struggles to find her way in the world, and believes that her path to happiness is through a teenager’s loins. By the end, Garcia seems to realize that her character has failed to mature in any meaningful way, and then makes a cheap attempt at catharsis. The film may as well have ended when one character tells Mel (and the audience), “Things happen. You just got to keep moving or die.” A thoughtless platitude such as this would be a fitting conclusion to a movie where Leigh may as well have turned directly to the camera and said, “The dead, shackled tiger is a symbol for my emotional state.”
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