SWIMMING (director/writer/producer: Robert J. Siegel; screenwriter: Lisa Bazadona; cinematographer: John Leuba; editors: Frank Reynolds/ J. Blake Fichera-uncredited; music: Mark Wike; cast: Lauren Ambrose (Frankie Wheeler), Jennifer Dundas Lowe (Nicola Jenrette), Joelle Carter (Josee), Jamie Harrold (Heath), James Villemaire (Brad), Josh Pais (Neil Wheeler), Sharon Scruggs (Marianne Wheeler), Todd A. Kovner (T), Anthony Ruivivar (Kalani); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Linda Moran; Oceanside Pictures; 2000)
“The anti-touristy mood of Siegel’s film sets it apart from other less thoughtful teen beach flicks.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Robert J. Siegel, the film professor, directed his last flick the anti-war “Parades” in 1972, helms an understated melodrama that is gentle and easy to handle without much to say about teens that hasn’t been said before. Though he’s not an accomplished director and the film lacks some pep, nevertheless Siegel manages to weave a probing psychological characterization that flows with the story and never becomes academic. It’s set in the tacky touristy mecca of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and is about a sweet teenager learning how to handle her insecurities in a cautionary way. Lauren Ambrose as the tomboyish Frankie Wheeler gives a heartwarming performance as the fire engine redhead with the engaging smile who is the innocent heroine trying to make sense out of her seemingly unhappy life and how concerned she is that others think of her as unattractive. It reminded me of an updated Marty but with a reversal of the protagonist’s gender as the lonely one who is pained for not having a significant other to lean on. Its most probing question for the peers in the hunt for the opposite sex is–What do you want to do? The response also echoes Marty–I don’t know, what do you want to do? The main difference is that there’s no parental pressure to get a man as the heroine is much younger and the times have changed so society has a more casual response to sexual freedom and doing your own thing, even in the land of Dixie.
The Wheelers retired to Arizona and left equal shares of their summer resort diner to Frankie and her gruff, square, hardworking, older married brother Neil (Josh Pais), who runs the place and carps constantly he’s not making as much money as he should. The town is dead during the off season but during the summer it bristles with festive life, as there’s an onslaught of tourists hungry for the beach and the amusement rides and dance club nightlife. Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe) is Frankie’s lifelong friend and owns a body-piercing shop next door to the restaurant. On evenings the two go guy watching and prowl for hunks, with Nicola being flirtatious and boldly assertive while Frankie is timid but more perceptive. On days, during the off season, the two go to the beach whereas the uptight Frankie refuses to swim and wears overalls to hide her bod, while the nervy frizzy- haired blonde Nicola is anxious to showoff her tight tattooed bod in a bikini. A seductive new gal in town, the hot looking statuesque Josee (Joelle Carter), is hired as a waitress by Neil even though she has no experience. Josee catches Neil’s ogling eye and remains working despite not doing such a good job, as she is self-assured and knows how to use people to get what she wants. Nicola is jealous that Josee is taking away the attention she usually gets from the boys and is miffed that Frankie has kissed up to her. Josee is dating the vainly handsome local lifeguard Brad, someone Nicola has an eye on.
The pitfalls of a sensitive person living in such a pop culture wasteland takes up most of the film, as Frankie wishes she were somewhere else and feels it’s only because she can’t afford to have a car that keeps her from moving on. The many subplots involve the girls and their relationships. Josee drops her asshole live-in boyfriend and rooms with Frankie, and the two flirt with a lesbo experience over a sensual lingering kiss but take it no further. Nicola impulsively goes after Brad’s Hawaiian marine pal, in part to make Brad envious but also to satisfy her strong sexual needs. Into the picture pops a free-spirited drifter, Heath (Jamie Harrold), with eyes only for Frankie. Heath has two dogs and sells tie-dyes out of his van. The good-natured weirdo invites Frankie over to his van to do some serious ganja smoking and to express a mild love interest, as Frankie gets high and then vomits and leaves us guessing what this relationship is all about.
What works best are the triangle scenes among the three gals trying to relate to each other. Frankie is always the focal point as she goes from close friends with Nicola to a realization that they are irreconcilably different. With Josee she learns how to dress to attract boys and doesn’t mind being used. While the two good-time girls Nicola and Josee can’t be anything other than rivals. By summer’s end, things are tense and no one is sure if their relationships will continue. The meaning of chic friendships is questioned in terms of how complex all the characters are and how in their own way they are striving for an elusive freedom. The anti-touristy mood of Siegel’s film sets it apart from other less thoughtful teen beach flicks. These ambiguous characters, even in their flat portrayals, provide all the charm the film needs to stay afloat. The ocean becomes a symbolic place for Frankie that is both a comfort zone and a fearful place that keeps her smothered with doubts, as she wrestles inwardly with how to change her life dramatically. She frets that her parents went to their paradise desert to die, and wonders if she has the guts to move on to better herself before it’s too late. That there are no answers is a good thing, as Frankie keeps her feelings close to her vest and we are never sure what she will do. But she has indicated that when summer ends there will be changes, as she has learned much from her more assertive girlfriends. The low-key story about Frankie’s measured awakening is told in an honest way and her dilemma always seems poignantly real, as the film endearingly works as both a friendship and coming-of-age tale.
REVIEWED ON 11/3/2003 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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