Monday, May 26, 2014

Don't Trust Your Safety in the Hands of The Lifeguard

Memorial Day weekend is the traditional unofficial start of summer, replete with barbeques and other outdoor soirees. Having been rushing from place to place all weekend, when I woke up early this morning, I just wanted to relax and sit back to watch something unexpected. I chose The Lifeguard, a 2013 film starring Kristen Bell. When this movie initially came out, I was excited to see Bell in a feature film that wasn't a B-level comedy and thus something very different for her that might show off the fabulous dramatic acting chops all we Veronica Mars fans know she has in her. But when I heard more about the film's premise, I wasn't sure if I'd want to watch if after all. In the end, when the movie showed up on Netflix, I decided to add it to my queue and today it seemed like the best candidate for my mood.

The Lifeguard is a slow moving but engrossing film about Leigh London, an almost 30-year-old ("29 and 10 months" as her mother points out early on) Associated Press journalist living in New York City and having an affair with her supervisor. When the latter gets engaged to someone else and seems to be dismissing what Leigh considers an important story by relegating it to a lesser section, she has a bit of crisis and decides to take a leave of absence. Leigh grabs up a duffle bag and her cat Moose before returning to her parents' house in Connecticut, where she picks up right where she left off. She gets a job as a summer lifeguard at the community pool and starts socializing with her former high school chums Mel and Todd. The trio end up spending a lot of their free time hanging out with a trio of current high school students, wannabe drop-outs who join the older crew in drinking and smoking weed out in the woods. And that's when things start to heat up between Leigh and 16-year-old "Little Jason," in a situation that every viewer knows will never end well.

It's hard to know where to even begin with discussing The Lifeguard. As I mentioned above, it definitely held my attention despite being a movie without any big special effects or honestly even a huge amount of backstory (the short time frame of an hour and an half meant that a lot of the past lives of these characters was mentioned in passing only or not fully explained). There is, however, a decent amount of time invested in exploring these characters right now and trying to elucidate their complicated feelings. The Lifeguard is one of those rare pieces of art in which you can enjoy the product without actually liking a single character. For instance, Leigh is the film's main focus and she's hardly someone you can root for, especially as her actions take her down more and more twisted paths. As the movie unfolds, you learn more about Leigh's past as the perpetual "good girl" - the school valedictorian who made all the right choices and never once before questioned where she was going. You can feel a little bit of sympathy for her as she starts to unravel and wonders what's next for her life; for instance, you can really see her conflicted feelings as she tries to council Jason about staying in high school and getting a college degree as she herself is back in her high school job making barely above minimum wage after years of pushing herself to do her best in school. At the same time, however, the rushed introduction to the movie leaves you wondering what exactly caused Leigh to have this un-epiphany that left her feeling so unfocused. The story that she wrote was certainly something to bother and unnerve her, but it was hardly something to make her abandon everything on seemingly a whim. As for her relationship with her supervisor, it should hardly have come to a shock to anyone that a person who is cheating is going to eventually disappoint. Meanwhile, Leigh seemingly doesn't use any of her time in Connecticut to reflect or mature. Instead, she reverts to becoming a rebellious teen, spending her time being completely inconsiderate to her parents, working in a dead-end job, drinking and smoking in the woods, and literally hanging out with teenagers. As someone roughly the same age as Leigh and her friends, I honestly can't see the appeal of many of their actions even if I can understand some of their philosophical concerns. Things finally hit bottom in terms of the viewer's ability to empathize with Leigh when she becomes involved statutory rape. She may be lost and confused, but that doesn't make it even remotely right for her to take up a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy. The fact that nearly ever other character is unfazed by this turn of events may tamp down the outrage factor a bit, but no viewer is giving Leigh the person of the year award by the end of the movie.

The other characters are similarly unlikeable, if not quite at the same level. Leigh's father is the only exception to the rule in the movie; he seems like a genuinely jovial guy that anyone would like to spend time with for a friendly brunch or something. However, he's so little seen in the movie that his presence is negligible. Leigh's mother is so wrapped up in her own affairs that she can provide absolutely no anchor or guidance for Leigh as she flounders about pathetically. Again, there's a little bit of sympathy as her mother tries to explain how for years she felt like her existence was tied up with Leigh's and now is the time in her life to do something for herself, but she is so cold and harsh throughout that it's not hard to see how Leigh could turn out the way she did. Mel is a hot mess - she was apparently the one who was the antithesis of the "good girl" in high school but now she's turned her life around and seems to have all the markers of success - she's married and holds a good, steady job as the high school vice principal. But with Leigh back in her life and her own fears about not getting pregnant - or about getting pregnant and not being a good mother - rearing their ugly head, Mel backslides and becomes involved in these stupid delinquent behaviors. Her relationship with her husband seems anything but happy for the majority of the movie, and Mel just seems to be floundering as well. Todd is unhappy with his small-town life but doesn't want to take the initiative to change anything about his life, hiding behind thin excuses and choosing to forget his troubles by drowning them in alcohol and drugs. Jason and his friends are typical conflicted teenagers but are arguably more on the "bad kid" side than most; they all appear to have a lot of baggage in their lives but most of that is explored only peripherally. For example, "Big Jason," the father of the teen, refers obliquely to some rough things that happened in his son's life but doesn't expand on this at all. Big Jason, although playing but a small part in the movie, is also a character you can't get behind. He seems to pay little to no attention to his son, despite professing that the child has had major challenges to get through, and doesn't have the slightest concern about a woman nearly twice Jason's age striking up a relationship with him.

One thing I could definitely say was of interest about the movie is that it certainly makes you think. You could argue after watching this movie that the film isn't just about a generation (specifically, my generation) of unfocused and confused people - those who are adults in name and age but haven't quite figured out what that really means yet. It's also about exposing this myth that small towns are full of wholesome goodness while big cities are where the filth lives. Leigh finds something horrific in her story at the beginning of the movie (and let's not even go in the symbolism of that story, as the movie does expound on this pretty well on its own) and leaves the city, but she doesn't find solace in her hometown. There is tragedy awaiting her in the small town, and no one there seems to be completely free of baggage or fears of some sort. Everyone seems to be in some sort of crisis, whether it's the agony of being a teenager and hating everything in your life, the confusion of being a young adult who is trying to figure out where life goes next, or the disappointment of being a middle-aged person having to re-invent yourself after a big chunk of your life has changed. It's like someone was illustrating Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development by showing only the negative crises.

The movie can also be seen as a commentary of gender roles and inequality in so many different aspects. While a small part of the movie, the crisis that Leigh's mother seems to be having after her daughter grows up and arguably doesn't need her any more is contrasted by her father being perfectly okay with her coming or going. Motherhood is an all-encompassing identity in a way that fatherhood isn't. This is reflected in the younger generation with Mel reacting extremely - and poorly - to the theoretical idea of becoming a parent while her husband seems completely unfazed by it. There's also the relationship between Leigh and Little Jason to consider. Early on, it's hinted that Todd is gay and Mel suggests that he may be interested in one of the boys. This seems to be condoned far more than her initial suspicions of Leigh and Little Jason's attraction to one another. Combine this with Big Jason's reaction upon hearing the news, and it's really not a pretty picture. It reflects real-life courts of opinion where older men having sex with teen-aged girls are consider perverts at best and rapists at worst while older women having sex with teen-aged boys is sadly brushed off by many as a sort of great achievement for the boys. It's a scary example of cognitive dissonance in which an age differential between sexual partners is both damaging and enviable, depending on the gender reversal. It was interesting to learn that this movie was written and directed by a woman; as I've noted before and many more articulate people than I have stated, when women get a voice in the arena everyone benefits from hearing their stories. In Hollywood, this means we get more than the standard fare of "chick flicks" that are simply romantic fantasies just as much about the leading man as the woman nominally at the heart of it. We get thought-provoking stories about all kinds of things beyond just romantic relationships and true female leads - sometimes strong and independent ones who we'd love to emulate, sometimes messy and confused ones who we vow never to become like.

Some final bits and pieces about the movie include a compelling soundtrack that meshed nicely with the cinematography and the overt themes. The cinematography was overall done very well, although there were a few scenes here and there with shaky camera work. I know this is a darling technique of filmmaker to symbolize any number of things including the characters' confused and hence shaken states of mind, but it's a pet peeve that I find distracting. When it's used too much, I feel like reprimanding the cameraperson with a stern "Just focus already!" With the pool and water being used as background - and symbols - a great deal, there's also a few times where we get the water on the camera lens issue also; this is another pet peeve of mine as I feel it serves to remind you of the fourth wall and thus takes you out of the experience of the movie's actions and into the experience of being a viewer. As I mentioned earlier, the beginning with Leigh's life in New York City was a little rushed with short clips of different situations all being sliced together in rapid succession. Perhaps the argument could be made that this was to give the viewer a sense of Leigh's confusion during this time period but I think it ended up providing a very incomplete view of what was going on at this point.

With all that mind, I'd recommend The Lifeguard for people who enjoy movies that make them think and provide slice-of-life portrayals of characters who resemble real people more than stock stereotypes. If you want action and characters you can love, don't even think about checking out this movie. But if you don't mind a messy set of characters struggling with life choices, you might just get pulled in to the pool alongside The Lifeguard.

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