Nostalgia and Loss of Direction Explored in ‘The Lifeguard’

LifeguardNowadays, being in high school means constantly waiting for it to be over.  We’re all trained to express the idea that there is much more to the world outside of high school, and that we should anxiously wait the day we get to leave and go off to college to explore our horizons and pursue a career that interests us (or pays well, depending on who you talk to).

But what happens when you’re ten years out of high school and those plans you made for yourself back when you were a teenager didn’t come true?  What happens when you wake up one day and realize that you’re not satisfied with your life?  You say to yourself, “I thought I’d have this figured out by now.”  As it turns out, this idea is found more and more in recent generations as they grow up from teenagers to young adults in their mid-twenties.  For them, it’s hard to find exactly when they’ve transitioned from an adolescent to an adult.  Even I, an 18-year-old college student, worry about my life plans as I grow older every day, and I struggle to hold onto my adolescence as I come to terms with the idea that I’m going to be twenty in less than two years.

Independent film The Lifeguard might come off as a comedy when you first see the cover.  At least that’s what it seemed like to me.  33-year-old actress Kristen Bell graces the cover in a lifeguard uniform as the synopsis tells us the film is about a 29-year-old woman who gives up her journalism career to move back in with her parents and take up a job as a local lifeguard.  I was expecting it to be a comedy, as television and movies often like to poke fun at the idea of grown adults living with their parents.  But The Lifeguard is actually a drama that focuses on the all too real concept that our generation is increasingly becoming more dependent on our parents as we’re pushed into a scary world.

We set expectations for ourselves.  “I’ll have kids and be married by the time I’m 30.”  “I’m going to live on my own right after college.”  “I’m going to move to ___ and get a high paying job after I graduate.”  The sad reality is that expectations often lead to disappointment.  And one day, like Bell’s character, Leigh, you might end up waking up, wishing you were still sixteen and still had time to figure your life out.

I recently watched the 2011 indie film Cougars Inc., which follows a group of high school boys eager to have sex with older, experienced women, and middle-aged women eager to feel younger by having sex with teenage boys.  The idea here is that today’s youth is increasingly wanting to grow up faster, while older generations strive to hang onto their adolescence.

Kristen Bell, known for playing sassy, snarky young women in TV and film, takes on an odd role here.  At the beginning of The Lifeguard, we see Leigh stumbling about her day-to-day life as a journalist for the Associated Press.  She has some sort of epiphany one day as she packs up her things – including her cat, Moose – and heads back home to live with her parents.

It doesn’t take long for her to meet up with her old high school buddies, Todd and Mel.  Todd (Martin Starr) is a 30-year-old closeted gay man working at a local art gallery.  Unhappy with his life, he’s always wanted to leave town, but something has always stopped him.  It becomes apparent that not only is Todd afraid of coming out, but he’s afraid of the world outside his hometown, as he will be forced to start over fresh in an unknown world.  Meanwhile, Mel (Mamie Gummer) had always been second-best when the two were teenagers and is finally getting her life together.  She has a job as the vice principal of the local high school.  She and her husband are desperately trying to have a baby, but it’s put added stress on her life in addition to her questioning whether she’s really happy with her life and her marriage.

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On her first day of work, Leigh meets Little Jason, the 16-year-old son of the pool owner.  After making a deal with Little Jason and his friends to buy them alcohol in exchange for marijuana, Leigh and Todd start hanging out with Jason and his friends, much to the dismay of Mel, who freaks out because she’s their vice principal and believes it to be wrong.  Eventually, Mel learns to loosen up a little bit and joins in on the fun, but her husband keeps attempting to drag her back to reality by telling her that “time only moves in one direction” and that she needs to stop acting like a teenager.

Meanwhile, Leigh and Little Jason pursue a romantic relationship.  However, things start crashing down as Mel comes to realize that what they’re doing is completely wrong.  And by the end of the film, Leigh comes to realize that her little break from life needs to end and she needs to get back to reality.

Kristen Bell has expressed how much more difficult it is to do a film like this as opposed to portraying people like her characters on Veronica Mars and Heroes.  

“It’s very uncomfortable to sit still; it’s much easier when you have a motive or you have props or a superpower or a lot of storyline to move really quickly. It’s much more uncomfortable when you just have to sit still and be vulnerable in front of a camera and do absolutely nothing,” she tells The Huffington Post.

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I think we can all agree Bell is well known and most likable in her sassy, take-crap-from-no-one roles, but the film is a nice break for her, and it adds a bit of variety to her archive of roles.  She does a good job here.  Of course, it’s old habit for me to expect her to spew out a few pop culture references here and there, or tazer the creep that gets too close to her, but here, she’s very simple, and like stated above, vulnerable.  I suppose that’s what the role is.

If I told you The Lifeguard was a story about a grown adult trying to regain her youth, I guess I’d have to say I wouldn’t be lying, but it’s a lot more than that.  It’s a look at the harsh reality we have to face: We can look back at photographs all we want, but that doesn’t stop time from moving forward.  The best we can do is cherish what we have now and make it the best it can be.  And if you’re still just sixteen?  Well, Leigh would tell you “You’re sixteen.  You have your whole life ahead of you.  You have no idea how lucky you are.”  So I guess as an 18-year-old, I should just be happy that I’m free of the responsibilities and stress I might have ten years from now.  Maybe I should stop worrying so much about my future and start to cherish the time I have as an adolescent.

I’d expect a movie about a 29-year-old lifeguard to be a comedy.  I’d expect a movie called Cougars Inc. that’s about a high school senior starting an escort service with older women to be a comedy.  But low and behold, I’ve come to realize that indie movies aren’t usually the same escape we seek in mainstream cinema, but they’re often just about day-to-day life without the rose tinted glasses.  The Lifeguard isn’t exactly a rare breed for independent films I suppose, but as far as movies I watch, you could say it is.  I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.  It’s nothing amazing or special.  But I guess all I can say is that it’s a real and honest story, and I give it props for that.

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