The Lifeguard is the first film from writer / director Liz W. Garcia and she can only improve from here. I can think of few experiences as achingly miserable as watching the gifted, successful, pretty, and social Leigh (Kristen Bell) whine her way through a thoroughly manufactured quarter-life crisis. The fact that she's even having a quarter-life crisis should call into question the depth of the screenplay to begin with. Since Garcia tacks on a seemingly endless array of sad close-ups and blurry backgrounds against an array of pristine blues I have to wonder about the visual depth as well.
This is a terrible movie that seems to have been written from the perspective of someone who will never know how lucky they are. Considering the only other work I've seen from Garcia is Dawson's Creek this commentary doesn't seem to far off. By the time the credits roll you will be as sick as I was of all the pretty people complaining about their lives.
Leigh's problems begin with the kind of word-to-plot association that makes a sadly large number of indie dramas read like self parody. She's a fairly successful journalist for the Associated Press who decides to quit her job after failing to find fulfillment through her affair with her engaged boss or stories about tiger's smuggled into the country and starved to death in high-rise apartment buildings. If that isn't a wildly implausible enough scenario, she decides to go back to her home town and become the life guard for the pool in an attempt to recall the last time she was really happy.
This sets up her reemerging connection to her old high school friends while she starts to form new relationships with the next generation of high schoolers. In practice it's one of the creepiest aspects of the film as Leigh's displaced sense of self and maturity blossoms into an unlikely romantic partnership with the sixteen year-old son of her boss (David Lambert). This detail, among many others, could be used as a criticism for the kind of meandering searches for meaning that undercooked drama's like this usually have. Instead it's used as a launching pad for the same sad discussion, repeatedly endlessly, while homogenous soft rock plays in the background for nearly a half an hour.
It's almost torture listening to these people. I wanted to scream at the characters to develop some kind of opinion on Leigh and maybe take action, but that would have cut into the trite dialogue that litters their exchanges. One exchange has her young future lover tell Leigh that she seems sad after she tells him not to just wander, but to have a purpose in life. I hated everything about this moment and it's indicative of all the other character progression in the film. They are all sad because there would not be a movie without their sadness.
The teenagers are sad because police officers are kind of jerks. The only responsible person in the film is sad because his wife is acting out irresponsibly (which means he is, of course, insensitive). Her friend is sad because in one scene he says, flat-out, "I'm sad". After that last scene I started to wonder why Garcia bothered trying to tell Leigh's story using a visual medium at all if all she was going to do is have her characters walk around talking about how sad they are.
Like a bad thriller, blue permeates the visual spectrum because water is blue and the film is about a lifeguard. Also since everyone in the film is emotionally blue, might as well fit as many scenes as possible in that color scheme. There are a few shots that suggest another visual theme, especially in the way the pool seems to overwhelm Leigh, but they do not hint at a larger structure that either criticizes or condemns her. Like everything else, it's just another sign of how blue everyone is.
The only interesting aspect of the film comes from the problems between Leigh's friend Mel (Mamie Gummer) and her husband. Like everyone else, Mel talks about her problems in a blunt way, telling Leigh that she's jealous of her , "Because you get to be lost." There's a good character and excellent arc trapped in that line as Mel is desperately trying to have a kid so that she can have some happiness at home. That storyline, which had potential, is resolved in the same few lines of dialogue as everything else.
Something dramatic happens toward the end of The Lifeguard, but it really doesn't matter. Everything that takes place just shows how little even the most devastating of tragedies affects these people. Perhaps if the darkness was accompanied by more expository dialogue like " 'I am sad', said the darkness" then we might have seen someone change. But The Lifeguard fails at even the most basic transition as Leigh enters the film a tragic wanderer and ends the same way. Spare yourself the journey, and just go for a dip instead.
Screenplay written and directed by Liz W. Garcia.
Starring Kristen Bell and David Lambert.