In The Lifeguard, Kristen Bell plays an AP reporter who abruptly moves back in with her parents and returns to her old summer job as a lifeguard at a local pool—a job that pays $9 an hour but comes with lots of free metaphors about drowning and responsibility. Unhappy with how her life has turned out, Bell decides to regress into teenhood, getting stoned with the local skaters, hooking up with 16-year-old David Lambert, and generally living the kind of carefree youth she never allowed herself to have.
Perhaps Bell is too busy wallowing in self-pity to notice that she lives in a symbolical universe full of convenient allegories for her anxiety: Tigers die in captivity because they’re not allowed to roam free; cats run away from their owners; building additions sit unfinished for years; a tract of land reminds one character of Miss Havisham’s estate in Great Expectations. Even Bell’s best friend, wild-child-turned-uptight-assistant-principal Mamie Gummer, exists only to throw her actions into sharp relief.
Like its lead character, The Lifeguard is stuck in a rut. After establishing Bell’s frustration within the first five minutes, the movie continually reiterates it. Writer-director Liz W. Garcia surrounds Bell with undernourished supporting characters—a closeted confidant, a depressed punk, Gummer’s boring husband—who express variations on Bell’s sense of entrapment without deepening it. They are less people than different voices chattering away in the same head.
Not that these non-people serve some kind of dramatic or rhetorical purpose. Though Garcia approaches the Lambert-Bell relationship with an admirable lack of squeamishness, her insistence on neatly wrapping up all of the plot’s many threads—which include Gummer’s reluctance to get pregnant and Bell’s relationship with her mother—suggests an oversimplified worldview. After spending almost its entire running time justifying Bell’s frustrations, The Lifeguard ends on a note of consequence-free contentment—a move that’s commonly known as a cop out.