Sundance Journal: ‘The Lifeguard’

Out of all the movies I saw at Sundance this year, I felt the most let down by ‘The Lifeguard’. With its ensemble cast and talented director, I thought it would be a heartfelt story. Instead, it’s a lukewarm rehash of dramas past.

The main storyline of the film revolves around Leigh (Kristen Bell), a 30-year-old who moves back home after a failed attempt to become a journalist. One of her stories isn’t taken as seriously as she would’ve liked, so she quits and moves back home with her parents.

After porn, one of the other main themes at Sundance this year was older women getting with much younger guys. ‘The Lifeguard’ is one of those movies. When Leigh moves back home, she gets her old high school job as a lifeguard at a local apartment complex. There, she meets a teenage boy that she falls for and has sex with. Perhaps if the movie focused mainly on that relationship and its inherent pitfalls, I might have been more of a fan. However, the amount of subplots that the film tries to shoehorn in is astounding.

The movie strays off on so many different tangents that it’s hard to catalog them all. There’s a superfluous story about Leigh’s sister’s tenuous relationship with her husband and their quest to have a baby. There’s another storyline about a depressed teenage friend of Leigh’s lover (played by Alex Shaffer) who might be suicidal. When that storyline pays off, you find yourself wondering if you should be sad at all since the movie is spread so thin that it never had time to actually develop any empathy for that character. Yet another story is about Leigh’s gay friend (played by Martin Starr), who hits on younger guys. The distractions mount as the movie simply buckles under their weight. Trying to fit them all in causes odd pacing issues and a movie that feels disjointed at every turn.

The filmmaker’s penchant for montages doesn’t help matters. At times, the movie feels like a quickly edited indie music video. The montages come fast and furious, especially when the movie has a hard time explaining what’s actually happening. Leigh’s entire relationship with the underage kid is explained through a montage. No wonder it’s hard to care about how they feel about each other by the end.

Director Liz Garcia (‘Cold Case’) fails to connect the various threads into a cohesive whole. As I sat in the theater watching ‘The Lifeguard’, I tried to think of some swimming metaphors that would accurately describe the experience. It belly flops, treads water, and then slowly drowns. I feel that’s a pretty accurate description.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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