August 21, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Hold your breath
is the summer's archetypal indie coming-of-age flick. By Dennis Harvey
GROWING UP IN a resort town is a weird one could cynically say apt preparation for life. The annual influx of strangers having the presumed time of their lives seems to suggest everybody else knows something you don't. They're racing from one funfest to the next while you and your friends sit there, bored, repeating that Beckettian cyclical mantra, "Whattayawanna do?" "I dunno. Whatta you wanna do?" Boredom, hometowns, and youth are, of course, the basic BLT combo on the American diner menu of formative experiences. But the delusion of uniqueness gets increased when you can't wait to escape a place that everyone else is stoked to visit.
That restiveness amid endless trivial diversions is nicely caught by Robert J. Siegel's Swimming, a movie that feels like a pleasingly modest, probably autobiographical first feature though Siegel is in fact no film school grad but rather a longtime film school professor (at the State University of New York's Purchase College, which so far has coughed up alumni such as Hal Hartley, Charles Lane, and Nick Gomez) whose credits stretch back 40 years. Not that there are many of them: one a decade, it seems, including two Vietnam-themed titles (1980's The Line and 1972's Parades, which was scored by Barry Manilow!) and a 1963 obscurity called Inesita, photographed by none other than wee Martin Scorsese. Such erratic activity, combined with TV commercial work, might lead one to expect journeyman mediocrity.
But Swimming is attentive and unassuming, credibly alert to the work-in-progress inner lives of characters likely one-third the age of its director-cowriter (UC Berkeley grad and former actress Grace Woodard shares screenplay credit with Siegel and first-time screenwriter Lisa Bazadona). No new ground broken is here, but amid the big noise made by so many summer movies, this pennywhistle flick makes one grateful for small favors.
Her parents having retired to Arizona, Frankie Wheeler (Lauren Ambrose) is stuck running the family's Myrtle Beach, S.C., restaurant and bar with older brother Neil (Josh Pals), who treats her more like a low-rung employee than the legal co-owner she is. After all, he's got the wife and kids to support, while all she's got is the vague desire to get a car and drive somewhere far away. Forever dressed in overalls and oversize T-shirts, moving among the tourist traffic with eyes downcast as though allergic to all the tanned skin and sunshine, Frankie exudes a "Don't notice me until I've figured myself out" ambivalence. She lets herself be dragged hither and yon by best friend Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Love), a piercing-shop proprietor whose social modus operandi lies quite belligerently at the scale's opposite end. Chest thrust out in 1950s bullet-bra style, brown hair spiked with bottle blond, she's a fiend for attention who needs an audience to witness each conquest. Passive, ultra-noncompetitive Frankie fills that role perfectly.
This balance is upset by the arrival of gorgeous Josee (Joelle Carter), whom Frankie helps get a job as a waiter as a favor to buff, brain-dead lifeguard Brad (James Villemaire). Disastrous as diner help but forgiven for the way she turns heads 180 degrees while tottering around in flimsy-fabric microtubes one might liberally call dresses Josee can't help being the object of fervent universal desire that Nicola strenuously casts herself as. Needless to say, the latter takes an immediate disliking to this interloper especially since starstruck Frankie is no longer her doglike follower but Josee's. For her part, Josee is as good a friend as she is undiscriminating a flirt. And she's equally sincere and short-attention-spanned in both roles.
True to the slogging, perennially hopeful nature of townie life in tourist enclaves, not much "happens" in Swimming; anticipation and frustration are the dominating nonevents. Frankie eagerly ponders whether Josee's casual affection might lead to the Isle of Lesbos, a possibility heightened when Josee leaves loutish Brad to crash in Frankie's bed. Suspicions arise that Neil's fraying temper could be a smoke screen for infidelity. Growing more obnoxious by the minute, Nicola retaliates for lost center-of-the-universe status by "falling in love" with a jarhead who talks like, all the time to an imaginary friend. Then there's goofy-cute Heath (Jamie Harrold), who sells tie-dye out of his van, camps at the state park, and courts Frankie with a persistent awkwardness just shy of personality disorder.
Swimming risks inconsequence by resisting melodrama so thoroughly, though that restraint is also its strength. The performances are perfectly low-key; the humor and angst ditto. You can fault Siegel for failing to impose any tangible directorial stamp, for the soundtrack of bland, no-name pop filler, for a particularly clueless freeze-frame close (all freeze-frame endings are clueless, by the way). But this little movie's modest virtues are as lazily pleasurable, and atypical, as a San Francisco heat wave.
'Swimming' opens Fri/23 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.