A recent theme in movies of the independent stripe has been the woman who can’t hack it in the world anymore — because she’s turning 30, or 40, or because her marriage has fallen apart, or her life — and who high-tails it back to home and family. Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” treads some of this turf, and last year’s “Hello I Must Be Going” took the idea for a touching and funny, if predictable, spin. This summer’s Kristen Wiig comedy “Girl Most Likely” was far too self-conscious, though, and now comes the weakest of the lot: “The Lifeguard,” starring the brave but bereft Kristen Bell.
Her character, Leigh, is a journalist in the big city (Pittsburgh) who panics when the big 3-0 approaches and she realizes her life lacks meaning. She returns to her tiny hometown, moves back in with mom (Amy Madigan), gets a job as a lifeguard at an underused community pool, and starts hanging out with her old high school friends who themselves are in various states of arrested adolescence.
“The Lifeguard” is being billed in some quarters as a comedy, which is a hell of a stretch given that the plot expands to take in statutory rape and teen suicide. Writer-director Liz W. Garcia depicts Leigh’s quandary with a heavy hand that gets heavier as the movie goes on, ending with one of those portentous freeze-frames that worked in “The 400 Blows” and never since.
Before then, the heroine’s friendship with a lanky misfit 16-year-old named Jason (David Lambert, who’s 20 and looks it) takes a turn for the lustily sexual, a tricky plot development — to say the least — whose nuances are well beyond this first-time director’s skill set. The results feel both ickily exploitive and emotionally overwrought, no mean feat.
Bell takes her role seriously — maybe too much so — but Mamie Gummer (daughter of la Streep) has an interestingly complicated supporting role as Leigh’s high school friend, now an assistant principal torn between adult responsibility and teenage hedonism. You come out of “The Lifeguard” with a sneaking suspicion that the movie should have been about her.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.