The last several years have produced (or at least tried to produce) several movies that not only define, but explain what it means to be a twenty-something in the ever-changing digital age. A criminally misunderstood generation full of equal amounts of artists now labeled as hipsters and professionals now labeled as elitists, it is refreshing to know that both worlds can (and do) collide every so often. Though it usually ends up being overly dramatic and blown way out of proportion, the crash collision can sometimes, as proven in The Lifeguard, be quite extraordinary and life-altering. Or, in this case, serve as a much-needed wake up call. As the tagline of this soon-to-be cult classic suggests, "This summer, growing up is optional." And is that not the whole problem behind this yet-unnamed generation of participant trophy wielding college-educated children of voice and privilege?
Debut director Liz W. Garcia (who also penned the screenplay) expertly tells a difficult story that, on the surface, seems like a standard romantic comedy. But with two major differences: the romance aspect is one formed out of bitterness, entitlement, and scandal, and there is nothing comedic about a pending mental breakdown that threatens to destroy anyone who tries to participate, or worse, intervene. Kristen (Gossip Girl, Veronica Mars) Bell leaves her usual rom-com realm of snarky-but-cute safety and tackles one of the most challenging roles in her young career. Her role is one of multiple walking contradictions. She is full of bravery in front of her friends, but cowardice in front of her family. She exemplifies the epitome of success at both work and school, but cannot salvage a relationship or a friendship in desperate need of repair. And while she pokes fun at those around her, judging and contemplating everyone else's goals and decisions, she refuses to accept that she never actually grew up. At the age of 29 and 10 months, no less.
With excellent additional performances by Mamie (The Ward, Side Effects) Gummer, Joshua (The Dark Knight, Unthinkable) Harto, Martin (Knocked Up, Superbad) Starr, and newcomer David Lambert, this film pushes the boundaries of our comfort zones. But don't be fooled by the "shock value" aspect that most critics panned as excessive and inappropriate. Things like this happen all to often. And people like this exist in every walk of life. In fact, there are probably more young people walking the streets nowadays than not who have absolutely no idea what they are doing, what they stand for, what they want to do with their lives, and how to get there. Bell's performance captures not only the essence of a troubled character, but the true spirit of an entire generation of people who have no idea how to act like grownups. This is, by far, the best performance of her career.