Not a new concept. Nor even a new way of executing the story. In some strikingly significant ways, The Lifeguard echoes The Good Girl (2002) and one third of Lovely and Amazing (2001), not to mention a handful of other movies wherein an adult breaks from responsibility and starts acting irresponsibly in the name of personal freedom. The Lifeguard fails to deliver anything unique and so feels much like a retread of other movies.
Partially because of its familiarity, The Lifeguard is unexceptional. But that doesn’t make it bad. Until the conclusion, it is an average piece of filmmaking.
Kristen Bell as Leigh, the protagonist, is very good to excellent. She brings Leigh’s confusion, loneliness and longing to the screen, making us feel it early and dislike it later.
The supporting players are also universally strong, with the standout being Mammie Gummer as Mel. We feel Mel’s confusion and angst every bit as much as we feel Leigh’s, but we also feel Mel’s struggle to remain a grown up, to do the right thing, even if being mature doesn’t feel all that natural anymore. Honestly, Mel is a more interesting and sympathetic character than Leigh. I wish the film had been from Mel’s point of view.
Prior to it’s conclusion, The Lifeguard’s primary issue is the way it characterizes other adults. We understand why Leigh makes her foolish choices, just as we understand why Mel makes hers. We do not understand Todd (Martin Starr) or Big Jason (John Finn), and there are times we struggle to understand John (Joshua Harto).
Todd is weakest of the three. He’s in the closet and unhappy. Okay. I get that much. But why isn’t he more offended by or inspired to interfere in Leigh’s behavior? Any rational adult who is close friends with someone behaving like Leigh would at least confront the woman. Why doesn’t Todd? What about his character makes him so accepting of Leigh’s criminality? For me to understand that question, Writer/Director Liz Garcia needed to define him considerably better.
Big Jason’s characterization is almost as bad. The father knows what his son, Little Jason (Martin Starr), is doing with a thirty-year-old woman. And he knows his son is dropping out of high school. Why isn’t he bothered by these facts? Again, Garcia needed to develop him better so that I know the answer to this question.
With the exception of flimsy development of supporting (male) characters, most of The Lifeguard is pretty well written and directed. Garcia’s dialogue is witty and natural, and she shows us her characters, rather than telling us about them through exposition.
That said, the film’s conclusion strains credulity. All of the most important characters have a happy ending, getting to move on with their lives after a wild summer of bad decisions. In the real world where choices have consequences, such a happy ending is unlikely, to the say the least, especially for Leigh. While she might well escape criminal charges given that neither her victim nor his father will cooperate with an investigation, she would not escape police involvement. Nor media coverage, especially insofar as she is a reporter herself. And, of course, an investigation for statutory rape would help throw her life into upheaval, at least for a time, whether or not she was eventually charged with a crime.
A real world Mel wouldn’t escape unhappiness either. At the very least she would lose her job. Period. From a public relations standpoint, no school district could ever retain her after everything she’d witnessed and participated in, no matter how much her principal liked her.
That Writer/Director Garcia fails to take her characters to more natural conclusions renders the final minutes of The Lifeguard more unsatisfying than they otherwise might have been. It also drops my final grade from a C to a C-.