Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 8, 2002
Life’s a Beach

Lauren Ambrose goes Swimming in a gem of a summer movie.


Swimming is a low-budget indie film,a fact that in itself puts it in danger of getting lost amid Hollywood’s summer blockbusters. Even by the standards of low-budget indies, however, it’s at a disadvantage. It’s a ground-level, realistic work without a hook — no gimmicky plot, no hot-button issues, no weird sex or violence. The movie’s director, Robert J. Siegel, hasn’t made a film in 22 years, so he isn’t even anywhere on the indie film radar, much less Hollywood’s.

The movie is seeing the inside of theaters because of good old-fashioned star power, though it came by that accidentally. Lauren Ambrose plays the lead role in this film, which was shot four years ago, long before she became an Emmy-nominated cast member of the critically acclaimed, cult favorite HBO drama Six Feet Under. In contrast to the angry, dryly sarcastic, sexually aware teenager she plays on the tv show, here she’s a quiet, reserved girl who’s awkward around guys and used to being overshadowed by her best friend. Ambrose overdoes the wide-eyed quality just a bit, but she gives an alert, beguiling performance that works on its own terms and will surprise tv viewers who know her only as Claire Fisher.

Her character here is Frankie Wheeler, and she works in a hamburger joint with her older brother in Myrtle Beach, S.C. She and her brother own the place, having taken it over from their now-retired parents. Frankie’s best friend is Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), who runs the body piercing place next door and wears revealing outfits while Frankie prefers overalls. They’ve been close since they were kids, but when Frankie’s brother hires a statuesque babe from out of town named Josee (Joelle Carter) to wait tables in the restaurant, Nicola’s alarm bells go off even before Josee starts hanging out with Frankie.

It isn’t just that Josee is new competition for male attention; she also makes Frankie conscious of her own self-worth in ways that Nicola has never done. Nicola tries to re-establish her position as best friend, but subtlety isn’t her forte, and it’s readily apparent how jealous she is of the sudden attention being lavished on her sidekick. The script by Lisa Bazadona, Grace Woodard, and Siegel nails down the complexities of this dynamic. The movie’s other plotline isn’t as fraught with emotional issues but is handled no less well for that: Frankie begins a hesitant romance with a gawky guy named Heath (Jamie Harrold, best known as the gawky guy at the water board office in Erin Brockovich), who sells tie-dyed t-shirts out of his van and has the unusual hobby of hitting golf balls on the beach late at night.

Of course, there are many coming-of-age pictures that take place during the summer, and they all seem to follow the same formula: nostalgic tone, golden-hued cinematography, period music, the main character in voiceover narration saying, “I knew after that summer, my life would never be the same.” This movie, thankfully, doesn’t play by those rules. Cinematographer John Leuba catches lots of sun, but he has the feel for the hamburger place and the streets crowded with tourists. By adopting an unassuming, observant visual style that suits its main character, the director not only gets us to see the world from Frankie’s point of view, but he also prevents any sort of forced warmth or manufactured emotion from seeping in. The present-day setting keeps nostalgia at bay. (So do comic incidents such as Nicola trying to have sex with a U.S. Marine, only to be interrupted by his imaginary best friend. “He keeps staring at us,” the freaked-out Marine complains.)

The script keeps other forms of sentimentality at bay, as well, because it disregards the screenwriting blueprint that’s taught in too many film-school courses these days. Frankie’s unremarkable life, filled with busy days working in the restaurant, shouldn’t be expected to follow a tidy three-act dramatic structure. The movie’s built as a series of episodes and interludes, and even though Frankie ends up learning how to assert herself and reaching something like contentment, it doesn’t come about via a contrived crisis. That’s not to say there isn’t a climax. Nicola gets thrown in jail for an argument with her new boyfriend, and Frankie goes to bail her out. Instead of being grateful, Nicola’s ashamed and angry about her situation, and her reaction leads to a messy and largely unspoken sort of resolution that feels right.

Swimming isn’t a great film, but it’s a marvelous piece of small-scale excellence. The movie theaters are currently flooded with product defined by Hollywood as “summer movies,” but this breezy and unhip piece of work is the genuine article. Its languorous pace, simple story, and gentle aesthetic pleasures capture something essential about the season. If the high-pressure salesmanship of the major studio blockbusters has gotten to you, this movie is a welcome break from all that.

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