Movies Without Pity

Indie Snapshot: Women on the Verge

by admin August 30, 2013 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: Women on the Verge

Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn just can't seem to get it together in the women-in-crisis movies, The Lifeguard and Afternoon Delight.

Proof positive that teen ennui doesn't end once you graduate high school, a pair of new indie dramas written and directed by first-time female filmmakers explore the troubled state of mind of two different women experiencing quarter and mid-life crises. Going in order of the central characters' ages, Liz W. Garcia's The Lifeguard introduces us to the on-the-cusp-of-30 Leigh, a Connecticut suburbs refugee who moved to the bright lights of New York City after college and settled into what was supposed to be her dream job as an Associated Press reporter. But reality isn't exactly measuring up to her expectations and after one particularly bad day, she flees back to her small hometown and the confines of her parent's modest house. Once ensconced in that safe, familiar environment, she regresses even further back to her teenage years, applying for her old summer gig as a lifeguard at the nearby public pool, getting stoned with her now-grown (and supposedly responsible) school friends, Mel (Mamie Gummer) and Todd (Martin Starr), and even striking up a summer romance… with her boss's 16-year-old son, Jason (David Lambert). Surrounded by the trappings of childhood and plenty of enablers, Leigh feels little incentive to return to adult life. And while the impending change of seasons -- not to mention a series of dramatic circumstances, including a suicide and a brief bout of homelessness after her fed-up mother kicks her out -- would seem to put a deadline on her suburban idyll, she's looking for ways to make this summer potentially last forever.

Released on the heels of The Way, Way Back and The To Do List, The Lifeguard completes this summer's unofficial trilogy of coming-of-age stories that take place in and around a public pool and/or waterpark. By design, this is the least amusing of the trio, as Garcia is striving for a more serious, sober tone than Maggie Carey's sex-themed romp or Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's surrogate father/son story. But despite its earnest dramaturgy, The Lifeguard happens to be the least emotionally resonant of the three as well, with the writer/director stifling any actual feeling with thudding, heavily-underlined subtext-as-text dialogue and an overreliance on indie rock scored musical montages as a way to pad out a scenario that Lena Dunham nailed with far more insight (not to mention a lot more heart… and laughs) in a 30-minute Season 1 episode of Girls.

The only thing that sticks with you from The Lifeguard is Bell, who really does seem to understand this character, perhaps because Leigh is -- to a certain extent -- a metaphor for of her own career. Having served her time on teen-oriented television and vapid studio-backed romantic comedies, Bell is in the process of transitioning into the difficult post-ingénue phase of an actress's existence through edgier shows like Showtime's House of Lies and smaller, more personal projects like her off-screen beau Dax Shepard's directorial debut, Hit & Run from last year. Watching The Lifeguard, it feels like Bell is actively using this film and this character as a way of signaling to the industry at large that she's ready put her own past behind her and embark on a second act that's closer to, say, Anne Hathaway or Natalie Portman rather than Rachel Bilson or Katherine Heigl. That actually makes it somewhat depressing that her next movie is the Kickstarted-Veronica Mars feature, a film that -- regardless of its finished quality -- kind of knocks her back into the kiddie pool she's actively trying to climb out of.

Jumping forward a decade -- in terms of age, not our actual timeline -- Jill Soloway's Sundance darling Afternoon Delight tackles the various woes of an on-the-cusp-of-40 Los Angeles housewife, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn). Despite seemingly having it all -- a beautiful home in the ritzy Silver Lake nabe, a sweet kindergarten-age son and a handsome, hard-working spouse, Jeff (Josh Radnor) -- Rachel finds very little joy in her life and instead becomes increasingly convinced that something is missing, though she can't articulate just what. Certainly, sex (or lack thereof) is a major issue, leading her to suggest to Jeff that they spice things up by going on a double-date with their pals to a down-market strip joint. Eager to please, her husband goes along with the plan and even buys her some private one-on-one time with one particularly attractive exhibitionist, McKenna (Juno Temple). Smitten with the baby-faced blonde stripper, Rachel returns to the club after their night out and instigates a friendship, eventually inviting a temporary homeless McKenna back to her Silver Lake house and setting her up in the spare room with the vague notion that she'll "help" nudge the girl towards a career change. But McKenna makes it clear that won't be happening; if anything, she doubles down on her professional skill set, which turns out to include prostitution. Clearly, this is a bad, bad idea, but -- much like Leigh in The Lifeguard -- Rachel (to say nothing of those around her) willfully blinds herself to the reality of the situation until it blows up in her face.

Where it's a bit easier to buy into the premise of a 30-year-old wanting to relive her high school years, Afternoon Delight is on questionable footing plausibility-wise the minute Rachel brings McKenna home with her as she might a stray puppy. But then, Soloway isn't so much interested in the reality of the movie's underlying scenario as she is the all-too-real emotional hurricane it stirs up. And some really compelling, heartfelt stuff does emerge as the movie goes along, particularly in relation to Rachel's ambiguous feelings about motherhood. The film's centerpiece (its Cassavetes moment, if you will) is a lengthy sequence at a "Wine & Women" house party that she attends with her supposed galpals and, fueled by a mixture of alcohol and resentment, proceeds to turn into an extended psychotherapy session. The scene is clearly the driving reason Soloway wanted to tell this particular story and the harsh, but honest emotions that are expressed (particularly from Hahn, who completely reinvents her sarcastic TV persona here) does help you to, in part, forgive the contrived plotting building up to it. But having scaled those heights, the writer/director loses control over the film's descent, seeking refuge from the uncertain future she's created for Rachel in a conventional neat-and-tidy conclusion that doesn't serve any of its characters (particularly Temple's McKenna, who comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Stripper throughout) especially well. Still, in a head-to-head competition, Afternoon Delight swims laps around The Lifeguard.

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