April 5, 2002
If I see one more independently made coming-of-age movie that begins with voice-over narration by a young person at a fateful crossroads in life, I might just explode.
But "Swimming'' is winning in spite of several cliches, in large part thanks to a marvelously delicate and complex performance by newcomer Lauren Ambrose ("Six Feet Under'').
As her name suggests, Frankie Wheeler (Ambrose) is a tomboyish, unattached young woman who spends evenings wandering around a teeming, hedonistic Myrtle Beach, S.C., with her similarly aimless and unattached best friend Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), a pretty young woman with a wild-girl exterior. Nicola runs a local piercing parlor, and in one scene shoots the breeze with Frankie as she's installing a stud in the tongue of a perhaps symbolic male customer. As a line of dialogue suggests, "Swimming'' is a type of post-feminist "Marty,'' the Academy Award-winning 1955 Paddy Chayefsky-scripted film about a lonely Bronx butcher (Ernest Borgnine).
Frankie for her part is co-owner of a diner where business is about to pick up for the summer season.
Although her deceased parents have left their house and business to Frankie and older brother Neil (Josh Pais), Neil moves his whole unstable family in, squeezing Frankie back into her childhood bedroom.
He also takes charge of the business, although none too efficiently. His latest mistake is hiring Josee (Joelle Carter), a tall, languidly sexy drifter living for now with a lifeguard.
Writers Lisa Bazadona, Robert J. Siegel and Grace Woodard, apparently taking a cue from Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Teorema,'' have conceived of Josee as an anarchic sexual force, a modern-day siren who comes between Nicola and the sexually curious and confused Frankie, and perhaps even between Neil and his long-suffering wife (Sharon Scruggs).
At the same time, Heath (Jamie Harrold), another drifter, arrives in town. This goofily appealing young man lives out of a van, makes a meager living selling handmade tie-dyed clothing to tourists on the beach and takes an instant shine to Frankie.
The plot of "Swimming'' hardly explains its charm. Director Siegel deserves credit for the way he showcases the actors and focuses on their unique characteristics, especially Ambrose's mysteriousness: her sexual ambiguity, gamine-faced freshness, seesawing emotions and the way her facial muscles register even tiny changes like the wind-brushed surface of a lake.
Ambrose's face changes as you look at it, from boyish to feminine, virginal to lustful. I can't think of any young actor who can do as much with close-ups as she can. That talent helps make "Swimming'' much more than just another day at the beach.
("Swimming'' contains sexually suggestive scenes, marijuana use and foul language.)
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