Saturday, February 02, 2013

Sundance USA: The Lifeguard

Two years in a row that the Coolidge gets disappointing movies for Sundance USA. Part of me wonders if a Robert Redford retrospective sometime this summer would help.

I must admit, this was a little more of a bummer because I really like Kristen Bell; she was fantastic on Veronica Mars and has had the occasional noteworthy movie role since, but I suspect that there's a reason why she says a movie that follows up on that series is still a possibility whenever someone asks: She's probably not going to get another role that good again, and just like Arnold Schwarzenegger never shut the door on Conan the King and Vin Diesel worked hard to make a third Riddick movie happen, that part can't help have a draw on her.

But, Ms. Bell wasn't there - director Liz W. Garcia was:

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I really should have brought my real camera, shouldn't I? And maybe find a better vantage point where the microphone doesn't blot out the face of a petite guest in 90% of my shots. Ah, well.

Ms. Garcia seemed like a nice-enough person and mentioned that, yes, certain bits of this movie are autobiographical - she worked as a lifeguard when she was younger, lived in a small town in Connecticut, and felt a bit of malaise at times - although that's about as far as it goes. She also called another guest up, co-star/producer/husband Joshua Harto:

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Thankfully, nobody asked for a repeat of Harto's most memorable moment in the movie (which I wouldn't be shocked to see cut, even though this is getting an R regardless; it's a weirdly crude moment that, like so much of the rest of it, goes nowhere).

The Q&A session was pretty standard, though happily lacking the "what did this cost" question and non-answer. They did get asked how long it took, and 21 days is a pretty respectable answer for a movie like this, especially since they only had one day in New York for a fair number of scenes. That brought up one of the more amusingly specific "people notice everything" questions, that an early scene showed Leigh on a southbound train when she should have been heading north, with the answer being that they were shooting that semi-guerrilla style (the transit agency would have charged a fair amount of money) on their way into the city for the day of shooting.

Another question, about how Garcia would often leave things out of focus at unusual times, led to a lot of praise of the focus puller, and how lucky they were to get this guy. It was kind of cool, actually - it's really easy to forget just how many different jobs there are on a movie set, and just how many things have to be done right for each scene to be usable, or even great. I will, maybe, have some small opinion of a movie's cinematography when I see a movie, but seldom really have any conception of what each person's job in that part of the crew was, and that this particular effect needed a crack focus puller.

Being reminded of that mountain of effort makes saying "it's not very good at all" feel even more lousy, but what can you do, other than hope they get the chance to do something better soon.

The Lifeguard

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 January 2013 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Sundance USA, digital)

It is, almost undoubtedly, a sign of encroaching middle-age that the first thing that annoyed me about The Lifeguard was the way that the characters not even a full generation younger than me acted. But I figured, hey, I watch movies about different cultures all the time; just treat them like they're from some weird European country that has "Connecticut" and "Vermont" as place names. Do that, and, well, it's still not a very good movie, but at least it got a fair shot.

29-year-old Leigh London (Kristen Bell) has always been a smart and capable young woman, and she's slowly working her way up to better assignments for a New York newspaper, but this June has been rough - a story that shook her badly was treated as something lightweight, and the editor she'd been seeing has gotten engaged to someone else. So, she packs up her things (and her cat) and heads back home to Connecticut, where she moves back into her old bedroom, reconnects with friends Todd (Martin Starr) and Mel (Mamie Gummer), and returns to her old summer job as a lifeguard at the community pool. She also starts hanging out with the son of the maintenance man, Jason (David Lambert), and his friends who want drop out of high school and move to Vermont - which doesn't impress her mother Justine (Amy Madigan) or Mel's husband John (Joshua Harto) much at all.

Writer/director Liz W. Garcia doesn't necessarily have a bad set-up here, even if a viewer doesn't particularly have to strain to see how what sort of parallels she's making between characters running away from their fears and other problems. The trouble is, a lot of the pieces don't seem to fit together: We're told that Leigh has always excelled, for instance, and part of the conclusion depends on her being pretty good at the job she walked away from, but we never see that. Coming from the other direction, she's almost thirty; is this particular set of disappointments really the first or worst she's encountered? Plus, there's a sequence that doesn't make a lot of sense unless she hasn't had this job before, since Garcia doesn't seem to be trying to point out that she's over-romanticized that time in her life. There's similar issues with Jason, although they can be chalked up to differing perspectives.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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