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The Hartford Courant

Lauren Ambrose gives an outstanding performance in Robert Siegel's quietly cool little indie.
Three Stars
By Deborah Hornblow

Before Lauren Ambrose made it big on HBO's "Six Feet Under," the young New Haven native gave an outstanding performance in Robert Siegel's quietly cool little indie from 2000, "Swimming."

Set in the seasonal beachside community of Myrtle Beach, "Swimming" is a familiar rite-of-passage story told in an innovative way. It's a coming-of-age film that avoids the usual clichés and sidesteps artificial plot turns to ground itself in the specificity of character and location.

Siegel's low-key camerawork builds a powerful sense of place. He follows the jostling, scantily clad hordes that strut the strip at night trailed by slowly cruising automobiles. He shows us the beach and a couple of tots spitting watermelon seeds. You can almost smell the tangy salt air and feel the sand between your toes.

You can also feel the restlessness in Ambrose's Frankie Wheeler, a young woman who was raised in the town but doesn't quite belong there. A nonconformist out of sync with the shoreline scene, Frankie winces in the sun and covers herself with overalls and shapeless T-shirts. She waitresses in the burger joint left to her and her stressed-out older brother, Neil (Josh Pais), and spends her nights wasting time on the strip with Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), the tough, feisty friend who runs a piercing stand. But more than anything, Frankie yearns to buy a used car and break away.

However, change is destined to befall Frankie, and the agents of change are two newcomers to town. The first is Josee (Joelle Carter), a lithe, blond beach bunny who is hired as a waitress by Frankie's brother (who neatly manages to overlook her lack of waitressing experience while his eyes roam elsewhere). The other is a nomadic tie-dye artist, Heath (Jamie Harrold), who lives in a van with his dogs and moves with the tides.

In short, sensitively calibrated scenes, "Swimming" records the minute and subtle shifts in Frankie's life and her relationships. The script by Lisa Bazadona, Siegel and Grace Woodard is never forced and doesn't reach for exaggerated high points. Josee, who exhibits an almost compulsive sexuality, appears more interested in Frankie than any of the men she dates. Nicola, a hot-headed and jealous friend, has an immediate dislike for Josee. And Heath, who cooks leeks with ginger and feeds hamburgers to his dogs, is another nonconformist who has his eye on Frankie.

Ambrose is superb in her first leading role on film. Her eyes are downcast and her elbows are pinned to her sides as she walks to the beach in the early scenes - her awkwardness with her body betrayed by every gesture. Later, as Frankie comes into her own, Ambrose's face and posture open up, radiating her character's new confidence.

Underscoring and amplifying Frankie's every mood is Mark Wike's smart, infectiously groovy soundtrack with tunes by G. Love and the Special Sauce, Bree Sharp, Leona Naess, Smog and Tin Star. (Not a Sarah McLachlan or Ani DiFranco tune in the bunch.)

Siegel's "Swimming" made the indie festival rounds, appearing at Slamdance in Park City, Utah, in 2001. It's terrific to see the movie finally open in Hartford - just in time for those who won't be making the scene in Misquamicut.

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