Kristen Bell (2012's "Hit and Run
") is an actress it is difficult not to fall for, to be instantly on her side. Maybe it's her naturally charismatic personality, or her unthreatening look. She's very pretty, make no mistake, but in a personable, identifiable way. Maybe it also could be a residual response to her irresistible star-making turn as a spunky, witty, achingly vulnerable teenage sleuth on the acclaimed 2004-2007 series "Veronica Mars." Whatever the case, Bell has that special "It" factor, and it serves her well in "The Lifeguard," a pared-down indie drama that finds her wearing little make-up and participating in decidedly non-"Mars"-like behavior. Written and directed by Liz W. Garcia (a writer on the terrific short-lived television series "Wonderfalls"), this is another one of those pictures about a person experiencing a pre-midlife crisis and returning to the comforts of their teenage routine in an attempt to replenish and find themselves. Sharing an alarming number of similarities with 2012's more insightful Melanie Lynskey-starring "Hello I Must Be Going
," "The Lifeguard" doesn't exactly win points for originality, but it is affecting all the same, scripted with care and showing that Bell is fully capable of diversifying the types of film roles she takes on.
In a beautifully economical, deeply poignant pre-titles opening, a delicately selected montage of snippets from Leigh's (Kristen Bell) unhappy life in New York City is all that is needed to understand and feel for the rut that she's found herself in. Two months shy of turning thirty, Associated Press reporter Leigh is not where she thought she'd be at her ripe not-so-old age. Writing a tragic story on a tiger that was cruelly kept chained up in an apartment before perishing, she finds herself empathizing in unexpected ways with the mistreated animal. Needing a change until she figures out her next step, Leigh packs her bags and heads back to her Connecticut hometown to stay with parents Justine (Amy Madigan) and Hans (Adam LeFevre). Reconnecting with old friends Mel (Mamie Gummer), an assistant principal at their old high school, and Todd (Martin Starr), a gay coffee shop owner, while picking up her teenage job as lifeguard of the town's public pool, former Valedictorian Leigh begins to also revert to the thinking and behavior of the kind of adolescence she feels she missed out on. When she befriends a rough group of 16-year-old boys looking to quit school and travel north, her relationship with Little Jason (David Lambert) soon crosses over into a sexual one.
Said underage affair Leigh has with Little Jason is, perhaps, the weakest part of "The Lifeguard," it never really made clear what they could see in each other past the purely physical. That it is meant to be more meaningful than that for both of them doesn't entirely convince, though the varying ways others react to learning about itMel is appalled, while Little Jason's own father (John Finn) is rather flippant and realistic about the whole thingis refreshingly balanced. What is better, however, is simply the process of growing up that a stunted Leigh experiences, as well as the way her reappearance has an impact on Mel's married life with John (Joshua Harto) and their failed attempts to get pregnant. Kristen Bell is exquisite as Leigh, at time frustrating and in the wrong in her actions, but also meaning well and compassionate. As Mel, spurred by Leigh to also question if she likes where she is in her life, Mamie Gummer (2013's "Side Effects
") brings regret, frustration and a twinge of envy to her complex supporting role. Complimented by an indie rock soundtrack that sounds just right, "The Lifeguard" works its way past one's defenses. Yes, this has all kind of been seen before, but that doesn't render null and void writer-director Liz W. Garcia's passion and sensitivity for the material.