Now, I like Kristen Bell. I liked her in Veronica Mars, I liked her in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I liked her voice-work in the most recent Disney mega-hit Frozen, but I do feel like she hasn’t really done a lot, and it’s a shame, she’s a talented actress who I enjoy seeing on screen. Here, in 2013’s “The Lifeguard” Bell was afforded a chance to truly show her abilities as an actress in what I feel is one of the better independent dramas of the last twelve months.
Directed by first-timer Liz W. Garcia, this is a feminine portrayal of self-discovery yet without the wet-blanket feel that many of those types of films seem to have. The distracted and confused nature of our main character, Leigh (Bell), brings elements of awkwardness and bewildered curiosity to the story, making the whole thing feel fresh, different and a little bit weird.
Successful in high school, Leigh has a top job in New York City and a relationship with a guy she loved, but when the connection in question dissolved and Leigh felt strain on her psyche, she quit her job and moved back to her hometown, staying with her parents while she answered the questions in her head about where her life was heading. She gets a job as a lifeguard and falls into a dangerous relationship with a troubled teenage boy which leads to her family and friends questioning her mental state and decisions in general.
There have been some criticisms of this film for its portrayal of the relationship between Leigh and Jason (David Lambert), a twenty-nine year old and a sixteen year old who find a unique bond and physically show their feelings for one another. Now, in my view the film isn’t telling anyone that this is a healthy way to go about living life, nor does it portray the decision of Leigh to find comfort in a younger man’s arms as rational, but rather showing a woman in turmoil who is revisiting her youth and finds a connection with another person who happens to be much younger. Set in America, the relations between Leigh and Jason aren’t legal, but in the UK they are and this may be the reason why the content of this story didn’t bother me. Some have even said that it “sickened” them but I feel like that is an over-the-top judgement of a film that is attempting to take an entirely fresh direction at telling a story of inner-anguish and poor decisions, reminding the viewer that we are all human.
Bell is fantastic at Leigh, bringing a youthful angst and a depth of emotion to her character and it is a joy to watch. She holds the film on her shoulders and bravely takes on topics that are both taboo and seldom confronted in cinema. Lambert, as Jason, is very good also and has a very mature nature about him that allows you to find understanding in Leigh’s admiration for him as she becomes entangled in her chaos. Martin Starr and Mamie Gummer play Leigh’s high-school friends, Todd and Mel, whom she finds comfort in as she returns home. Starr is an actor I usually enjoy, and I did here too, his wit and everyman composure brings a calm to his scenes that is needed when the story takes a hectic turn. Amy Madigan, as Leigh’s mother, Justine, offers a great performance too, her understanding of Leigh’s crisis clashing with her feelings that her daughter is going “off the deep end”, pardon the pun.
There are side-stories with each character and it makes the whole experience of the film feel full and rich, bringing more than just faceless b-characters to the screen that we don’t care about at the movie ends. We do care, and that is one of the main positives of it.
The Lifeguard is one of those films I will re-watch a few times. It isn’t perfect, and it may upset some people with its storyline, but the story is new and refreshing and the performances from the experienced cast takes it to another level.