Frankie learns that there's more to her existence

`Swimming' ably depicts girl finding friends - and herself

August 16, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Young Frankie Wheeler is having the sort of summer endured by everyone on the cusp of adulthood, when new relationships are formed at the expense of old ones. It's a time when adolescents learn more than they ever wanted to about both dependence and independence - including the revelation that they're both seriously overrated.

With Swimming, first-time writer-director Robert J. Siegel has crafted a loving, knowing look into the heart and soul of every young girl struggling to make it alone in a world where that's both a goal and an impossibility. The movie, set on the boardwalk of Myrtle Beach, S.C., suffers from a few subpar supporting performances and a tendency to stack the deck too much in the protagonist's favor. But those problems are more than compensated for by a standout performance from Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) as Frankie and a script that eschews major happenings in favor of the little, day-to-day events that color most of our lives.

At first, Frankie doesn't realize there's going to be anything special about this summer. She'll spend it running the oceanside burger joint she co-owns with her malcontent brother, Neil (Josh Pais); hanging out with her best bud, aspiring bad-girl Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), who runs the piercing parlor next door; and playing second-fiddle to all the bronzed, beautiful (and barely concealed) bods that regularly flock to the boardwalk.

But then, things start happening. The restaurant hires a beautiful blond waitress named Josee (Joelle Carter), who befriends Frankie and actually seems to enjoy her company (thus destroying the myth that Frankie's simply not up to hanging out with the beautiful people), and a shy, free-spirited drifter named Heath (Jamie Harrold), who sees Frankie as something more than just a kid behind the counter.

Under such a barrage of attention, it's hard for Frankie to maintain the illusion that she's a nobody destined for nowhere; without realizing it, she starts gaining confidence in herself. But the new Frankie is having a tough time reconciling her blossoming sense of self-worth with the dead-end friends she's been surrounding herself with.

And that includes Nicola, whose determined unpleasantness is finally - as it should be - getting on Frankie's nerves. Still, how can you tell a friend she's not a friend anymore?

Ambrose gives a remarkably tethered performance as Frankie, in a role that could easily have devolved into nothing more than a scowling adolescent who finally learns how to smile. Her Frankie is much more than that, a reluctantly old soul (how many teens are forced to co-own the family business?) searching for a sign there's more to her future than burgers, sand and beautiful people who aren't her.

Siegel needlessly surrounds her with a supporting cast almost uniformly unlikable people who are either a bit too casual in their willingness to toy with people's lives (Josee), nasty without hope for redemption (Nicola) or just plain goofy (Heath). Frankie doesn't need to be the only sufferable game in town to be the most compelling.

As Nicola and Heath, both Lowe and Harrold overplay their hands. Lowe may be a victim of her character; for even the most experienced actor, it would be tough to make such an unregenerate malcontent sufferable, much less empathetic. And Harrold, sporting one of the screen's worst haircuts, is plain irritating.

Fortunately, that's something the movie is not. Swimming is perceptive and, ultimately, embraceable. Like the adolescent it so lovingly depicts, this is a movie you want only the best for.

Swimming

Starring Lauren Ambrose, Jennifer Dundas Lowe, Joelle Carter

Directed and co-written by Robert J. Siegel

Unrated R (language, sexuality, drug use)

Released by Oceanside Pictures

Time 98 minutes

Sun score ***

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