Gentle, leisurely paced and totally unexpected, "Swimming" lifts the viewer out of their everyday existence and gingerly plops them into a seaside resort town. This is one of those places that gets busy during the summer and perhaps spring break, but seems desolate the other 3 seasons of the year. And, as the opening segment seems to foreshadow, this summer, changes are sure to be coming.
The film centers on Frankie, a likeable tomboy coming of age in the resort town. When boys and girls enter her circle, she seems unsure of which she is more attracted to. The boys seem easy and expected while the girls seem new and intriguing. Unfortunately, the film doesn't delve into this latter aspect of Frankie's growing pains as much as we expect nor as much as it needs to. She may share some tiny moments with another female character but they never truly develop leaving Frankie, at the end of the film, older and somewhat wiser but still perhaps not fully formed. At the very least, she seems happier and that's the true beauty of watching her discover the world as it approaches her.
This is one of the many subtle nuances that make the film really likable. Frankie has a small sense of wanderlust but doesn't really act upon it. Stuck in the seaside town, the world comes to her in the appearance of strangers, college kids and summer slackers who seep into her story. The opening credits sequence which finds Frankie walking with friends through the busy nightlife of the town shows her destine to discover an outside world, destine to look at it, bump into it and finally, to jump on in. Hence the swimming metaphor of the title. Another likable aspect of this journey is that Frankie and her pals do not bitch and moan about the coming tide of itors to their sleepy town. (Not much anyway). There could be some really typical and easy plot points about locals vs. visitors with fistfights and destruction and angry parents and all that. But this film always takes the high road and exposes a inner journey, an inner growth, rather than an outside world harshly encroaching on Frankie and her friends. The world comes and Frankie struggles, but there are no car crashes, riots or explosions. Rather a deep sense of finding oneself and learning to value what is important prevails.
"Swimming" could have been a lot of typical contrivances, but thanks to it's script and talented cast it is not. Lauren Ambrose is simply awesome as Frankie. If the Academy truly honored the best talent in films in a single year, her name would be one of the five announced in January. Ambrose is perfection imbibing Frankie with a realism and a subtle charm that overwhelms us in it's undercurrents. Her interactions with all of the others in the cast, especially her tender moments with Joelle Carter and Jaime Harrold, are never short of wonderful. This is a talented cast in a film that isn't hurried, isn't verbose and certainly isn't concerned with making statements.
Producer/Director Robert J. Siegel, who also co-scripts, does much here to keep the film simple and subdued. His direction finds quiet and unaffected moments to tell a coming-of-age story, a female coming-of-age story no less, that easily and gently takes us over. It's no accident that Frankie helps to run the family business, one that has been established for quite a while, while her best friend Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe) is the proprietor of a body piercing boutique right next to it. The old family business juxtaposed against the signals of a new generation reflects Frankie finding herself adrift in time and space, without precedent nor plans, allowing the rising tide of young male and female libidos to guide her through the summer, to an eventually growth and self-discovery. It's a marvellous journey to view and Siegel never betrays the somewhat scruffy naivety or the casual cautiousness that Frankie exhibits with his images.
Indeed, one of the things Siegel does best is allow his characters to be natural. Children are used in a few scenes and come across quite uncontrived. This seems a sure indication of Siegel's ability to allow his actors to take time and care and get things just right. There is an underlying ease to the film that washes over us much like the coastal tide that appears throughout the piece.
Siegel also uses music well. Pop songs pop up in the film here and there but always accentuate, never distract. The most wonderful of these moments is the aforementioned title sequence where Frankie views a world of newly arrived, sexual shining adolescent bodies cruising the boulevard of her hometown. Frankie, dressed in her tomboyish overalls and without make-up to adorn her freckled face, notices, it seems, for the first time, the changing, sexually charged world around her. And this change is solidified by the sudden arrival of the seasonal visitors. Frankie, for all her wanderlust, finds a world to explore on her doorstep. It's a brilliant moment, perfectly conveyed that establishes exactly what kind of story we are about to see. The song underscoring this moment, a folksy, pop ditty called "America" by Bree Sharp, is simply the first of many gentle, breezy pop tunes to tinge the unobtrusive story and film we are witnessing. It's a masterful combination of movie and music that is often misused and blasted through by unthinking, money-hungry, soundtrack selling distributors, producers and filmmakers. Siegel gets it just right.
"Swimming" is a powerful film because it is so simple and so breezy. Like the summer in which it takes place, we find fun and quiet surprise in what it exposes to us. Like the fall season that signals the film's end, we find time to reflect and glow in the memory of it.
Filmed in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The film has played at over 15 festivals and won numerous awards.
Siegel's last film as director was 1980's "The Line."
Ambrose has appeared in at least two other films that would be of interest to gay audiences, "Psycho Beach Party" and "In and Out." She is also slated to appear on TV screens in 2001 in scripter Alan Ball's "6 Feet Under" series. Ball also wrote "American Beauty."
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