"Swimming" makes the coming-of-age experience seem as fresh as tomorrow because its makers take this inevitably painful and often perplexing transition seriously without being solemn, bringing to it a sense of humor that is wry rather than jokey.
Director Robert J. Siegel depicts its unfolding with a grace and sunny sensuality, and he and his co-writers have created a group of young people who are drawn with a deftness and an awareness of their complexity that is more common to French rather than American movies.
Yet "Swimming" is as American as apple pie. The setting is the summer resort town of Myrtle Beach, S.C., where a brother and his sister have taken over a busy boardwalk restaurant from their parents, who have retired to Arizona.
The film's central figure is the sister, Frankie (Lauren Ambrose, an Emmy nominee for her role in HBO's "Six Feet Under"), who is about 15 or 16. It's hard to tell, for Frankie has not yet blossomed. She's a pale, apple-cheeked redhead who wears no makeup, and her standard uniform is baggy coveralls over a T-shirt.
Older brother Neil (Josh Pais) is boss, and she lives with him, his wife and their two small sons. Next door to the family restaurant is a body-piercing parlor run by Frankie's longtime best friend, Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), a brash, extroverted, tousle-haired blond loyal to and protective of the inexperienced Frankie.
At one point Frankie exclaims that she hates her environment, and no wonder. She is a waitress at the family restaurant and surely must feel like a wallflower amid the summertime crowd of stunning-looking young men and women, who all fervently believe that if you've got it, flaunt it. Into the lives of Frankie, her family and friends walks the tall, gorgeous Josee (Joelle Carter), a classic beauty in the Candice Bergen tradition, whose looks have given her a well-justified self-confidence.
Josee takes a waitress job alongside Frankie, who is bowled over by this glamour girl, which instantly triggers jealousy within Nicola. In the meantime, Frankie catches the eye of Heath (a very likable Jamie Harrold), who has arrived in town in an old hippie-esque van with his dog and a load of tie-dyed T-shirts to sell.
With the disturbingly attractive and uninhibited presence of Josee stirring things up around her, Frankie finds herself increasingly drawn to Heath, who is as sweet and affectionate as a puppy and whose attraction to her is more than sexual but has no promises of love, undying or otherwise. Frankie at last begins to see in herself the desirable young woman she is in the process of becoming.
Ambrose's Frankie, who is more intelligent and capable of reflection than those around her but is even more unworldly than she realizes, is tremendously appealing. So is Nicola, for all her headstrong, reckless ways, and Lowe reveals the emotional vulnerability and capacity for caring for others that lurk beneath Nicola's bold facade. Refreshingly, Carter's Josee is not some unbalanced troublemaker or calculating villainess, but a spontaneous, amoral creature.
As actresses, Lowe and Carter are as promising as the radiant Ambrose. "Swimming" is a wonderfully evocative title for this movie of ever-shifting moods, suggesting Frankie's growing awareness that when it comes to living her life, she's got to more than stick her big toe in the water and instead jump right in and start swimming.
* * *Unrated. Times guidelines: some sexuality, language, complex adult themes.
Lauren Ambrose: Frankie Wheeler
Jennifer Dundas Lowe: Nicola Jenrette
Joelle Carter: Josee
An Oceanside Pictures presentation. Director Robert J. Siegel. Producers Siegel, Linda Moran. Executive producer Reginald Shelbourne. Screenplay Lisa Bazadona, Siegel and Grace Woodard. Cinematographer John Leuba. Editor Frank Reynolds. Music Mark Wike. Costumes Laura Sewrey. Production designer Charlotte Bourke. Art directors Niamh Byrne, Jessica Donahue. Set decorators Cecile Thalmann, Gwen Ray. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
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