The Lifeguard, which opens today, premiered at Sundance in January, and for a lot of us who read the synopsis and the cast list and spent months with the trailer in the backs of our brains, it seemed like a given that this would be the role that would change Kristen Bell’s career and show off just how much range she has as an actress. In a way it did do that, but with that dreaded “if” attached. The film foreshadows just how great Kristen Bell could be if she were provided with better writing and a better character to portray. She’s very good in this movie, for what she’s given, but even the most amazing actress can’t take a contrived and lifeless script and turn it brilliant.
And that’s what this movie is – contrived and lifeless. I hate to do that thing where I borrow a pun related to the movie’s subject matter in order to critique it, but that’s what I’m going to do. This movie lives in the shallow end, and it needs desperately to take the plunge into deeper waters. There, I made the pool analogy. Now let’s talk details. The Lifeguard, which was written and directed by Liz W. Garcia, is about Leigh (Kristen Bell), a former valedictorian and current New York City journalist on the verge of turning 30 and dissatisfied with how her life has turned out. We know this because she says, verbatim, “My life hasn’t turned out like I pictured.” That’s just the first in a string of on-the-nose lines that repeat the same quarter-life-crisis clichés we’ve been witnessing in movies for years. This movie’s just not as subtle about it.
Leigh packs up and heads home to Connecticut, where she insists on moving back in with her parents so she can take a break and figure things out. Here’s where Leigh’s selfishness starts to show. It gets much worse as the film goes on, and even Kristen’s solid performance couldn’t make me root for this character. It’s especially hard to feel any sympathy when Leigh takes a job as a lifeguard (the same job she had as a teenager) and enters into a sexual relationship with Little Jason (David Lambert), her boss’s teenage son. This can all be gleaned from the movie’s trailer, which frankly gives you the gist of the entire movie. There’s not much more to say about it, because not much else happens. I understood the overriding metaphor of the film – that Leigh is trying to reclaim her youth by hanging around with teenagers – before I even began watching. When the movie was over that was still the only message the movie had sent me, but it was missing the “why” or “so what” that should have come along with it.
The film wallows in annoying self-pity, and the characters do nothing to garner sympathy. This is partly because we simply don’t know enough about them to understand why they’re so unhappy with their lives. We know that Leigh was having an affair with her engaged boss before she left New York, but we don’t get much insight into why that affair happened in the first place, and that relationship doesn’t even come up again for the rest of the film, so what was the point? On top of this, it takes a lot of character complexity to make a 30-year-old (sorry, 29-year-old, as Leigh would insist) woman having sex with an underage boy sympathetic and not morally contemptible. I spent the whole movie waiting to feel something for her or to understand her impulses, but I got nothing. Sure, there are a few obvious metaphors, like when Leigh repeatedly references a story she covered about a tiger who died in a city apartment. We get it, she’s the tiger and she doesn’t want to be a prisoner in her own life. We all feel that way sometimes, but we don’t all go have sex with a teenager to deal with it.
The supporting characters aren’t developed either. We’re given almost no backstory for Little Jason, whom Leigh seems attracted to simply because he’s a good-looking, brooding guy who pays attention to her. Not exactly great justification for their relationship. Leigh’s friend Mel (the always wonderful Mamie Gummer) is a vice principal who ends up acting irresponsibly and enabling Leigh without even realizing, all because she doesn’t know if she wants a baby? I’m honestly not even sure. Then there’s their friend Todd (Martin Starr), who serves no purpose other than to procure weed and insert a dry comment here and there.
The film just piles on indie cliché after indie cliché and emo moment after emo moment with nothing to back it up. I admire the effort, as goodness knows we need more films by women about women, but the execution just doesn’t work. It’s almost like a first draft was written, to be reworked and enriched later on, but no one ever got around to that part and they just filmed what they had. The more I thought about this movie in the hours after I watched it, the less I had to think about, because there’s nothing thought-provoking about it. You’d think a film with such controversial subject matter would inspire some moral or philosophical pondering, but it never came.
The most heartening takeaway I have from this movie is how glad I was that Kristen Bell tried something new, and how relieved I was to see that she could handle it, even if the material didn’t give her enough of a chance to shine. She has the opportunity to deliver her usual snarky dialogue like “I’m the motherfucking lifeguard” – a line which unfortunately seemed to be a deliberate, look-at-me reference to the film’s title. But she also shows some real emotion and vulnerability, bringing a glimmer of likability and nuance to an otherwise despicable character. The problem is that the movie doesn’t give her anything to back that emotion up, so it basically all ends up being for naught. If given a well-written, complex role, I think Kristen could really break away from being typecast as the cute, spunky girl that we all know and love and start showing off her range as an actress