Defying conventional wisdom, a former valedictorian discovers that not only can she go home again, she can even shag a hot high schooler in the process, steaming up some otherwise stagnant soul-searching in Liz W. Garcia’s tawdry “The Lifeguard.” Kristen Bell bucks her good-girl image in a role that suggests how a twisted 10-year reunion might look had Veronica Mars become a sexy New York reporter, hit a wall and been forced back to suburbia. Drowning in self-pity is about as fun to watch as it sounds, however, which will mean difficulty getting people interested for any but prurient reasons.
To those from her Connecticut hometown — including former classmates Todd (Martin Starr) and Mel (Mamie Gummer) — Leigh has been making good on her “most likely to succeed” potential, living the single-girl dream. Only things here hardly fit the “Sex and the City” fantasy: Leigh’s b.f. is married, she has no fabulous gal pals to party with, and her journalism job hardly pays enough for posh clothes or cosmos. So, with her 30th birthday looming, she does what Carrie Bradshaw never would: She gives up.
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Leigh’s parents (Amy Madigan and Adam LeFevre) have always been supportive, but they’re not sure what to make of their daughter’s retreat from responsibility. Needing time to re-evaluate her priorities, Leigh resumes her high-school job, supervising swimmers at an apartment pool.
The complex has gone downhill since she last worked there, and now the residents are mostly deadbeats and punks. Two in particular catch her eye: “Little Jason” (David Lambert), the maintenance guy’s cocky son, lives just above the pool house, while his best friend, Matt (Alex Shaffer), struts around with a blue mohawk, a symbolic rejection of his too-square community.
The old Leigh — the one who was driven to succeed but never took time to enjoy life along the way — would’ve ignored these kids, but now she’s not so sure ambition was the right path. There’s something satisfying about smoking pot and retracing her old stomping grounds with Jason and his buddies, though things get weird when Leigh drags Todd and Mel (who now works as the vice principal at their alma mater) into this misfit clique.
The film withholds judgment when Leigh and Jason hook up for the first time — if you can call practically drooling on itself “objective” — and follows along as the two play out their respective fantasies, barely hiding their statutory, er, romance from the others. It’s a tiresomely overplayed dynamic, where she re-experiences youthful vitality through him while repaying the favor with older-wiser advice, until such time that social constraints break the spell, though Garcia never takes things to that feverish, heightened place explored by the likes of “To Die For” and Jerzy Skolimowski’s “Deep End.”
Here, it’s the two parties’ mutual sex appeal that drives things. Lambert brings a forlorn dimension to his seductive young role, but Bell never really convinces as the older woman. Despite flirting with controversy, the actress seems reluctant to plunge fully into potential unlikability, nor does the film quite give her the chance. Rising to the occasion, Gummer actually has the more interesting role, forced to pick sides when she learns that her best friend is breaking the law with one of her students.
Take away the underage sex angle, and “The Lifeguard” is shallow enough that auds could easily splash around unsupervised. The movie probably wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t for a startling twist near the end, triggering the depth of emotions the film had been reaching for all along. The rest of the time, the pic just lurches forward — falling back far too often on an over-loud (and poorly chosen) pop soundtrack to drown out stretches where Leigh does most of her moping/thinking/growing. Tech credits are otherwise decent, if occasionally clumsy.