‘The Lifeguard’ Review: Splashing Around with No Real Purpose

By  · Published on August 30th, 2013

Editor’s Note: Allison’s review of The Lifeguard originally ran during this week’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited release today.

Everyone has those moments when they question where their life is going, but hitting the pause button can end up doing more damage than good. When The Lifeguard’s Leigh (Kristen Bell), a reporter for the Associated Press, covers a story about a tiger who had been kept in a cramped Manhattan apartment, Leigh’s overly emotional reaction to the scratch marks on the windowsill make it clear Leigh is struggling with her own anxieties about being trapped in a life she did not see for herself.

Without a second thought, Leigh hops on a train and returns to her parent’s home in Connecticut, the lush landscape a stark difference to the harsh New York metropolis she is looking to escape.

Only two people seem thrown by Leigh’s return, her mother (Amy Madigan) and her friend Mel’s husband, John (Joshua Harto), and while Leigh claims she is not having a breakdown, the fact that she thinks going back will help her move forward is an obvious sign of some slight delusions. Leigh immediately reverts back to her high school ways, rounding up her friends Mel (Mamie Gummer) and Todd (Martin Starr), begging them to stay out late with her, and getting her job as a lifeguard at the local pool back. We learn that Leigh was poised for greatness post-high school and based on her quote in the senior yearbook, Leigh was just as excited to get to that promising future as the people who wanted to see what she would do with it. But as John wisely observes, sometimes those with the most promising futures are destined for failure when they cannot live up to those high expectations.

Leigh’s move back does not just affect her – her friends, who are seemingly happy with their lives, begin questioning their own choices in the wake of seeing this once shinning star falling from a high perch. But it is when Leigh befriends a group of misfits, particularly the handsome (and aptly named) “Little” Jason (David Lambert), that her misguided, seemingly innocuous “life pause” takes a dangerous turn. After finding out the boys are planning on dropping out of high school, Leigh inserts herself into their lives to (ironically) try and keep them from making a terrible decision.

While it is Leigh making these choices and decisions to come back home, to befriend this group of boys, to take herself off the grid for a bit, her choices end up affecting not just her and end up having a ripple affect on everyone around her as well. This would be fine and was a compelling way to draw the rest of the cast in to the central story, but when things finally come to a head, no one in The Lifeguard seems to face any real consequences for their actions which ends the film with a shrug rather than what could have been an affecting message about what can happen when adults start acting like children again.

The narrative and performances are engaging enough up until the third act, but that is when you expect some real comeuppance to justify that Leigh’s decision to go back home perhaps did teach her something, otherwise the film comes off as a risky summer vacation that everyone easily walked away from. Liz W. Garcia creates an interesting (and beautiful) world placed in the Connecticut countryside, a true escape from Manhattan and a location you could understand Leigh wanting to run away to, but when nothing amounts from the serious situations that develop, it is difficult not to be left feeling disappointed and frustrated. Leigh is not a bad person, but she is old enough to know better, and it did not seem like she grew up any more from the beginning of the film to the end, despite everything that happened to her.

The Upside: Solid performances from the central cast (particularly Lambert) and an interesting idea of seeing what happens when one does not live up to expectations, but…

The Downside: … the lack of consequences for the serious actions and missteps made by these central characters make a potentially affecting film end up feeling pointless.

On the Side: The Lifeguard is not the only film at Sundance exploring this idea of dangerous May-December relationships with the concept showing up in Two Mothers, A Teacher, and Breathe In… as well.