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The Baltimore Citypaper

Pearl Diving
Swimming Makes Much Out of Its Coming-of-Age Plot
By Adele Marley
August 14 - August 20, 2002

Sometimes the most sincere joy a film can offer is getting the little things right. From the painstaking attention to detail that characterizes Swimming's beach-resort setting to its subtle treatment of the vicissitudes of beauty politics and female friendship, this low-key, no-budget charmer has it down--with plenty of guile and without smirky irony. The film focuses on flame-haired, tomboyish misfit Frankie (Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose), who is a reluctant but permanent fixture in a town of transients (the seaside honky-tonk of Myrtle Beach, S.C.). And it does so with nuance, complexity, and emotional resonance--a refreshing change of pace in the played-out coming-of-age genre.

In this tale of ennui by the sea , insecure Frankie--who, with her baggy, boyish duds and flyway hairdo, seems to be going for studied androgyny--whiles away her time at the body-piercing salon owned by her mouthy, flashy best friend, Nicola (a convincing Jennifer Dundas Lowe), when she's not waiting tables in the greasy spoon her retired parents left to her and her older, married brother. Frankie feels out of place amid the constant influx of tanned, sultry bodies, and the beach scene becomes increasingly stale as the summer drags on (so uneventful are her social occasions that Frankie baby-sits her brother's kids while hoisting suds at a local beer garden). But the arrival of fresh blood in the form of a new waitress, Josee (Joelle Carter), stirs things up a bit.

Josee is a knockout (in reality, all three female leads are as conventionally cute as any movie starlet--even "plain" Frankie is only a lipstick application away from stunning), and her looks seem to ensure her all kinds of special treatment. For example, she's an incompetent waitress but, thanks to Frankie's brother, keeps her job strictly as eye candy. Diplomatically, she pretends not to notice (nice touch). Even Frankie is blown away by her, which ignites the already-piqued jealousy of Nicola, who is accustomed to attracting all the attention. Before Frankie's girly crush can erupt into full-blown homoeroticism, however, a pothead drifter named Heath (Jamie Harrold) who sells tie-dyed T-shirts from his van rolls into town and gets stuck on Frankie. More envy ensues.

Just describing the plot of a movie like Swimming is a betrayal of sorts. It's one of the most subtle, character-driven Hollywood films in recent memory, with rhythms so lifelike that everything dramatic (with the exception of Nicola's tantrums) simmers just below the surface. Credit the collaborative efforts of co-writer/director Robert Siegel (a frequent director of TV commercials) and his co-writer, Lisa Bazadona, for a film that's wry and uncannily observant.

Swimming gets inside the peculiar workings of female bonding in a way most cinematic fare doesn't bother, but not to the point of overkill. For instance, though Nicola acts like a pain in the ass for most of the movie, she reveals a fiercely protective streak by something offhand she does early on, something that says a lot more about her and her friendship with Frankie than any subsequent ranting and raving. Surprisingly, Josee is similarly complex. Usually in teen flicks, the pretty, popular girl is rendered in broad, villainous strokes. But Carter's character manages to be amoral and likeable at the same time; her tendency to seduce everyone she comes into contact with seems less a conscious manipulation than an unfortunate side effect of being self-confident and genuinely personable.

Another thing Swimming has down cold is the inherent cheesiness of beach culture, with its legions of migratory exhibitionists, run-down restaurants that tout their air conditioning, and Day-Glo bedecked nightclubs. Most evocative is the tacky, graffiti-inspired sign--airbrushed highlights and all--that marks Nicola's body-piercing kiosk on the boardwalk (it brings to mind a similarly telling visual in the 1993 indie sleeper Ruby in Paradise, a film Swimming strongly resembles.)

But Swimming's real strength is Lauren Ambrose's performance as Frankie--she displays a lot of poise in creating a fully realized portrait of someone who's in a state of flux. Ambrose (recently nominated for an Emmy for her work on Six Feet Under) helps this unslick, meandering flick pull you in gradually, working on you like the undercurrent does in an ocean that's calm on the surface.

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