For cinephiles on tight budgets who read dispatches from Park City with envy, the Sundance Film Festival USA program brings a small slice of the annual Utah extravaganza closer to home. Sure, it’s just one film and one filmmaker on one day, but for audiences in 10 select cities, it’s like having Sundance right in your own neighborhood.
Here in the Boston area, the Coolidge Corner Theatre will host Sundance USA for a fourth year, again keeping company with such notable art houses as BAM in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Music Box in Chicago, and Sundance Sunset in Los Angeles. Each theater gets a different film direct from competition at Sundance: The Coolidge will screen “The Lifeguard,” which will be presented by its writer-director, Liz W. Garcia. In past years, Sundance USA took place while the festival was underway. This year, it has been moved to Jan. 31, allowing a bit of breathing room after the festival concludes on Jan. 27.
A longtime television writer, Garcia, 35, has contributed scripts to “Dawson’s Creek,” “Wonderfalls,” and “Cold Case.” With her husband, actor-producer Joshua Harto, she created “Memphis Beat,” starring Jason Lee, which ran for two seasons on TNT. But “The Lifeguard” was one of those stories kicking around in Garcia’s head for nearly 10 years. She grew up in Ridgefield, Conn., and worked as a lifeguard at a condominium complex pool before enrolling at Wesleyan to study film.
“The film is not autobiographical but I’ve always wanted to draw on that experience,” she says in a telephone interview from her home in LA. “I wanted to direct and knew it had to be something I’d written. I knew this was a way to get into the indie film world. I did worry, is it too personal? Is it too female? My hunch was that the story was more universal than I was giving it credit for.”
“The Lifeguard” is about a New York news reporter (played by Kristen Bell) on the verge of turning 30 who drops out of the rat race and returns home to suburban Connecticut. Wanting to recapture the time she was happiest, she goes back to her high school job as a lifeguard at a community pool. She’s soon embroiled in a heated romance with a troubled teenage boy (David Lambert). Mamie Gummer, Martin Starr, Alex Shaffer, and Amy Madigan round out the cast.
“It’s set in New England and there’s a New England feel to it,” says David Courier, Sundance Film Festival senior programmer, when asked why “The Lifeguard” was chosen for the Coolidge. Like most indie films at the festival, “The Lifeguard” did not have a distributor when this story went to press, although its makers were still hoping to find one before the festival ends. Courier says films’ commercial prospects have no bearing on whether they’re chosen for Sundance USA. “Even if these films don’t get picked up, there are still many options,” such as online streaming or video on demand, he says. “We program for quality and innovation.” He adds that the provocative subject matter and Bell’s star power likely will attract a theatrical distributor.
“Liz’s film is very daring and very fearless, like so many of this year’s films,” says Courier. “It’s one of many that have a dangerous sexual element. Women filmmakers are exploring sexuality in ways they haven’t before. This film goes right after it and it’s a great part for Bell. She’s done a sexual role before with ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall,’ but that was a comedy and this is not.”
Launched in 2010 in eight cities, Courier says Sundance USA “is our way of celebrating art houses across the country.” The Coolidge, he says, “is one of the founding theaters and one of the best. We [at Sundance] wanted to thank the art houses and spread our wings but mostly we want to bring a dialogue about indie films across communities. It develops and supports an audience for indie cinema and we get to send our filmmakers to places where they are likely to be appreciated.”
Perhaps seeking an edgy role to counter her “Veronica Mars” and “Gossip Girl” image, Bell expressed an enthusiasm for Garcia’s script that helped get it off the ground. Garcia says Bell understood the character’s desire “to recapture the false idea of youth.” The actress also identified with a young woman dissatisfied with her professional accomplishments “who wants to rebel against the reality of what the future holds and be free.”
Working with Bell “was a dream,” says Garcia, whose family will be traveling from Connecticut to Brookline for the screening and discussion. “I’ve experienced the opposite with actors. She was talented, brave, and very professional. I can’t wait for audiences to see her in this.”
Garcia left Connecticut for LA just months after graduation with “a little savings and a car.” For the next year, she worked as a temp for a Wesleyan alum. “It was culture shock,” she admits. “To go from Wesleyan — where it is conscientious, diverse, and cultured — to LA, where people just say the most outrageous things. It took me a while to get used to it.”
After working on “The Lifeguard” in earnest, Garcia took time off to give birth to her son in 2011. She was behind the camera in summer 2012 shooting in Pittsburgh, which made a convincing substitute for the Connecticut suburbs.
“I’d learned to tweak scripts on ‘Memphis Beat.’ But the biggest challenge was in the editing room,” she says. “I had to learn to let go of emotionally cathartic scenes if they did not serve the story.” Garcia admits it feels risky to be out there with a film this personal. Does that mean she once romanced a high schooler? “No, I didn’t. And if I did, I wouldn’t make a movie about it,” she says. “But anything that requires imagination, that is drawing on your own worldview, is personal.”
“The Lifeguard” screens on Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline. Admission: $15. Garcia and Harto will participate in a post-screening Q&A. For more information go to www.coolidge.org.