"Swimming" is a rarity among modern movies: a coming-of-age tale without cliche or sentimentality, a teen-themed film that's neither insulting nor insipid. Bolstered by a luminous performance from Lauren Ambrose, "Swimming" explores adolescent angst with refreshing authenticity.
Set at a Myrtle Beach, S.C., seaside resort, the leisurely paced film uses its drab and sweaty environment to convey a sense of transience. Relationships are fleeting here, and there's a stuck-in-time malaise that overcomes the locals who eke out a living in the tourist trade, whether piecing body parts or serving meals in a steamy restaurant that touts its air conditioning more than its food.
At the center of the film is Frankie (Ambrose), a tomboyish teenager who, along with her married, preoccupied older brother, runs the family restaurant that was willed to the siblings by deceased parents. "Swimming" offers a quietly assured sense of Frankie's character from the moment we meet her. Clad in baggy overalls and looking bored on a desolate beach while best friend Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe) lounges in a bathing suit, Frankie is tiptoeing into the waters of adulthood, eager but afraid to take the metaphorical swim. Even the character's name conjures up associations: Redheaded Lauren Ambrose, the breakout star of HBO's "Six Feet Under," echoes in appearance and manner Julie Harris' definitive adolescent, also named Frankie, in "The Member of the Wedding." Ambrose's Frankie is alternately plain and radiant, adventurous and cautious, in this insightful, complex portrait of a girl on the brink of sexual maturity.
The catalyst for change arrives in the swinging form of Josee (Joelle Carter), a pretty blond whose lifeguard boyfriend arranges a job for Josee at Frankie's restaurant. The free-spirited Josee can't wait tables worth a lick, but her attractiveness and flirtatious manner guarantee that her ineptness will never be an obstacle in her life. Josee is the kind of young woman for whom ease with sexuality comes naturally in order to get her what she wants.
Frankie isn't immune to her charms, and the younger girl becomes fascinated by Josee and her manipulative but flattering attention.
Director Robert J. Siegel handles this delicate material with grace, style and unexpected twists. "Swimming" conveys the thrill and complexity of an adolescent crush to underscore Frankie's nuanced character. Yearning for something more than the weekend partying on the boardwalk with piercing-shop proprietor Nicola, the repressiveness of the restaurant and the condescension of her older brother, Frankie is eager to assume her own identity. The film nicely delivers two characters into Frankie's world that help her figure out who she is and where her loyalties lie: the dubious but seductive Josee and the laid-back, likable Heath (Jamie Harrold), a drifter who sells T-shirts out of his van.
"Swimming" is a well-crafted film that is all the more remarkable because it achieves its emotional power and moments of revelation with restraint and a delicate ambiguity.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
Directed by Robert J. Siegel; written by Lisa Bazadona, Robert J. Siegel and Grace Woodard; photographed by John Leuba; edited by Frank Reynolds; music by Mark Wike; production design by Charlotte Bourke; produced by Robert J. Siegel and Linda Moran. An Oceanside Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:38. No MPAA rating.
Frankie Wheeler -- Lauren Ambrose
Nicola Jenrette -- Jennifer Dundas Lowe
Josee -- Joelle Carter
Heath -- Jamie Harrold
Brad -- James Villemaire