Life is hard and many of the decisions we make don't always lead us to a place of happiness. Not all films are meant to make us feel happy or gleeful either. Sometimes they provide a glimpse into the darker side of life, the side where we don't always make the best decisions, but learn from our mistakes.
The Lifeguard is just such a film, where the main character is childish, reckless and damaged in all the ways that make each and every one of us flawed and genuinely human. It may not paint the best picture of an adult having a mid-life crisis, but it certainly is a real one.
Leigh (Kristen Bell), a moderately successful New York reporter, returns home after 10 years to rediscover herself by working her old college job as a lifeguard at the local pool. During her time back home she rekindles old friendships, develops new ones and inadvertently stirs up trouble for everyone she comes in contact with which ultimately teaches her a life lesson that she isn't entirely ready for.
This is an independent film, which means you are in store for a whole lot of soul searching and a whole lot of character interactions mixed with character growth. Staying true to its genre, the film has no shortage of scenes with people sitting in front of a lake reminiscing, people sitting in their cars and staring off into the distance, blossoming romances that are often doomed to failure and people trying new things to spice up their life and quickly discovering they are as boring as they always thought they were.
If none of that sounds appealing, then clearly you are not a fan of the independent film market, but more so than that, you are sadly missing out on some great character driven drama. However, since there isn't really much that happens in the film besides the drama between all the characters and the great unknown of where they are headed and whether or not they will reach their destination in one piece, the only other thing to talk about are the performances.
Kristen Bell is an actor of whom has never really given a performance that has left an impression before (note: this comment is solely based on her feature film roles). She has relegated herself to playing either the stuck up pretty girl (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), the bitchy pretty girl (Burlesque), the cute pretty girl (When in Rome) and finally the everyday pretty girl (Hit & Run).
For the first time in her film career however, she has shed that pretty girl image (and most of her makeup) and has found a role with some real meat to it and does not squander the opportunity. Every actor has that one daring performance in them, where they forget for a moment that they are beautiful, perfect or fawned after and take on a role just to prove they are more than a pretty face. While she doesn't quite reach that level here, we do get to see a different side of her that shows much more range than the capable young actress has ever shown before.
The rest of the cast which includes Martin Starr, Mamie Gummer and Amy Madigan, along with a handful of other newcomers, do their part in providing real characters for Bell's character to interact with and ultimately discover who she is. However, this process she must go through, not the performances, is likely going to be the decisive factor in whether or not you ultimately like the film or find it completely infuriating.
The character of Leigh is not a sympathetic person. Even though it is easy to identify with her longing to return to her roots and re-discover herself, it is in the way she re-discovers herself that will have you questioning you feelings towards her. How she shows up in her hometown, visits friends and family who have relatively peaceful lives and completely disrupts them with her childish antics to relive her youth, its very self centered and just a tinge frustrating to watch.
The biggest character arc for Leigh comes in the form of a local High School kid (David Lambert) whom she flirts with and of course eventually hooks up with. Her self discovery quickly turns into self destruction and it gets real messy real quick. It isn't easy watching her wreck the lives of all those around her to satisfy her own self indulgence and she will test your patience in more ways than one. There isn't even really any form of redemption for her continued callous indiscretions, making the final moments of the film feel more like she was forced to move forward instead of actually learning a lesson.
But in its own way, Leigh's journey and the fact that she never finds redemption is a lesson in and of itself. That even when we don't end up where we wanted to be or how we aren't the person we wanted to be is a reality that we all must face at some point or another and how we deal with it determines who we really are. In Leigh's case, she deals with it in a very immature manner and we get to see the repercussions of her adolescent-like decisions.
While the film can be a little on the depressing side more often than not, isn't quite as eloquent as it could have been and is a little rough around the edges in getting its point across, in the end, with a winning performance from Kristen Bell and some worthwhile soul searching, the film's message is still heard loud and clear.