We’ve all had those moments in our lives where we feel that something is not quite right, that a change needs to be made in some area in order for us to feel right with the world. But what if it’s the entire thing that feels out of joint? What does one do when your job, your location, and everything you’ve worked towards just seems wrong? For Leigh London, the answer lies in returning to her childhood home to reassess her life in the hopes of finding out where the change needs to occur.
Liz Garcia’s “The Lifeguard” begins with Leigh (Kristen Bell) in New York City. She works as a reporter for The Associated Press and has a pretty good career going. She even has a special relationship with a colleague. Then she suddenly realizes that something is wrong, that her life is not exactly what she imagined it to be, causing her to pack a few things and move back in with her parents in her small childhood town. Leigh spends her time reconnecting with old friends such as Todd (Martin Starr), an art dealer, and Mel (Mamie Gummer), the vice principal at the local high school. She also takes up her old job as a lifeguard where she meets Jason (David Lambert), a teenager on the verge of dropping out of school. As the two spend more and more time together, they begin to realize that there is something more between them, something that eventually develops into a special relationship of their own.
Taking a look at that synopsis, you probably won’t notice much that you haven’t seen before. That’s because “The Lifeguard” is a film built almost entirely upon clichés. How many times have we seen a character’s life not going the way they want, so they come back home to sort things out? At this point, it’s not uncommon for a relationship to bloom, whether it’s with an old friend or someone they’re meeting for the first time. The only slightly unusual thing here is that the boy Leigh meets is just a teenager, which causes them to keep it secret for as long as they can. Spoiler alert: other characters eventually find out.
To add to the list of clichés, we have the youths (Jason and his friend Matt (Alex Shaffer)) who want to escape from the small town. They have plans to move to Vermont in hopes of a better life, but they need to get the money together first. Their departure seems imminent, but it becomes a bit complicated for Jason when he and Leigh form their special bond. She tries to convince him how great it is right where he is, but being young and unsure of what he really wants to do, he feels that getting out would be the better option.
Garcia must have had some message that she wanted to get across with this film, but the only one that is clearly stamped on every frame is that not everyone’s life turns out exactly the way they planned it, which is yet another cliché (you could even throw in “you can’t go home again”). By using the building blocks of such a familiar foundation, Garcia has crafted a film that has nothing original to offer, making “The Lifeguard” mostly a slog to sit through.
What the film desperately needed was some originality. Have the characters do something unexpected. Have Leigh solve her life crisis in a different way other than going back home to reconnect with her past. Even changing up the ending from everything pretty much going back to the way it was would have been a nice switch. Because of the familiarity, these characters end up feeling like nothing but stereotypes, giving us little reason to form any kind of connection or to offer up any sympathy.
Speaking of the characters, there were a number of side characters that could have used further development, including Leigh’s parents, Todd, Mel, and her husband. By further expansion on these characters, Garcia might have been able to get past some of the clichés that bogged her movie down. She certainly didn’t do them any favors by leaving most of them in the dust as she does. I would have particularly liked to see more of how Leigh’s parents were dealing with her sudden homecoming. Her mother begins to tell her how it is affecting her, but it’s so brief that it leaves you wanting more, making you wonder where such scenes would have gone.
“The Lifeguard” basically becomes a series of “what ifs.” Not only what if Leigh did something different with her life, but also what if Garcia took this film in any other direction than where it was fully expected to go. Surprise the audience and they’ll be incredibly appreciative. Put them on a track where they can tell everything that’s about to happen miles in advance and they’ll likely forget the film moments after it’s over. At least there’s one common link to connect the audience with the main character: They both end up feeling stuck in a rut. 2/4 stars.
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