This review was originally published on January 19, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
"I just want to get out of here!" is the refrain of the sullen teenagers in Liz Garcia's debut film, "The Lifeguard." I identified. They were talking about their boring Connecticut town; I was thinking about the theater.
"The Lifeguard" is a painfully dull (alleged) drama utterly lacking in originality or self-awareness. It is the precise sort of film Mama warned you about — the one that comes to Sundance and mars the good name of independent film with its predictable script and unending scenes devoid of any urgency or aesthetic point of view. It retreads last year's debacle "Hello I Must Be Going," another tale of a thirtysomething woman who moves back in with her parents and starts an affair with a teenaged boy. It is, and there's no point in mincing words now, awful.
Kristen Bell plays Leigh, a woman who's unlucky in love and trapped in a moody montage set to M83-ish music. Leigh retreats to her childhood home to ... well, we don't really know what her goals are. Nor does she, so I guess that's fine, but watching her whine around her wealthy parents doesn't exactly make for expressive cinema. Leigh decides to get her old high school job back, that of a lifeguard in a private apartment complex. (The scene explaining why this position just happens to be open right now is, I'll just assume, on the cutting room floor.) Bell is certainly fetching in her red bathing suit, though the maintenance man's son, Little Jason, keeps a respectful distance.
Little Jason and his punk-ass friends spend most of their time skateboarding and grousing about how lame things are. Thanks to a quid pro quo agreement to trade beer for marijuana, Leigh and her two 30-year-old pals who never left home start hanging with the high school kids at bonfire parties. There are complications, then laughs, then some shoehorned tragedy and finally life lessons. All of it in the blandest, least-original tone.
Here's a good example of why "The Lifeguard" is infuriating. Leigh's mother drives her and her stuff to the house. When they get there, she opens up a cat box and a cute little feline (named Moose!) runs out. Mom then asks, "Why did you have to bring your cat? Couldn't someone look in on him?" They were in a car for hours! She didn't think to ask then? It's a little point, and normally I'd never bring up a writing cheat like that, but it is indicative of a much larger problem.
The movie's greatest sin, however, is squandering the talents of Martin Starr. He plays the gay friend, and while I applaud the decision to go against the grain and not make him swishy, they also forgot to give him anything to do. The comedy genius from "Freaks & Geeks" and "Adventureland" is up there on the screen, ready to entertain us, but nothing happens.
Considering Bell's star power (and some of the racy love scenes), it seems likely that "The Lifeguard" will have some sort of post-festival life. Bell does the best she can with the material, as does Mamie Gummer, who plays Leigh's other hometown friend, an assistant principal having marriage troubles. The kid playing Little Jason, David Lambert, has some chops, too. There's a moment where he uncovers something shocking and he makes, as they say, unique choices. Too bad he's acting his heart out while you, in the audience, will be rolling your eyes at the false importance of the scene. That is, if you make it that long.
SCORE: 2.7 / 10