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Lauren Ambrose is Brillant ... Swimming is on my don't miss list
Kathi Maio
April 30, 2002

... Another, equally good, small-budget movie about a woman beginning to open herself up to the possibilities of her life, and nurturing her own independence, recently had its "World [Theatrical] Premiere" at the Landmark Kendall Square Theater. It is called Swimming, and like Kissing Jessica Stein it is clearly a labor of love by a group of independent filmmakers who cared passionately about their work, but who didn’t see the need to shrink-wrap their story into a tidy, package.

Swimming has had an even longer journey to theatrical release. Director Robert J. Siegel, who teaches film at SUNY Purchase, was so impressed by the senior thesis screenplay of one of his students, Lisa Bazadona, that he optioned the screen rights. The coming of age story was based on Bazadona’s experiences, gained over several summers, painting temporary tattoos on tourists at Myrtle Beach, SC. After reworking the screenplay (along with Bazadona and Grace Woodard), Siegel found funding and shot his film in the autumn of 1998. Although it has played several film festivals, it never made it to theaters.

The fact that it finally is seeing the light of day, and the dark of selected movie houses, probably has a good deal to do with the heightened cachet of the movie’s star. The protagonist of Swimming, an observant, androgynous young woman named Frankie, is played by a breakthrough actor named Lauren Ambrose. If you don’t know the name, you will. And if you do, there’s a good chance you know it because of her involvement in one of HBO’s "critically acclaimed" (as they like to say) original series, the darkly comic nighttime soap about a family of undertakers called "Six Feet Under."

Lauren Ambrose plays the baby of the family, a suitably alienated high-schooler named Claire. She is very good in the series. And Swimming proves how good she was, even as a younger, greener performer.

Her Frankie is a quiet young woman in her late teens. She’d like to forge an independent life for herself, but isn’t quite sure how. Especially since she can’t afford the requisite tool of American escape and discovery, her own car. So, she bides her time, toiling away her Summer days in the family burger restaurant (which she nominally co-owns with her controlling older brother) and wandering the carnival streets of her beachside town with her lifelong friend Nicola (an equally marvelous Jennifer Dundas Lowe), every night.

Nicola, who runs the body-piercing parlor next door to the restaurant, is as impetuous and confrontational as Frankie is cautious and mild. They love one another fiercely, but aren’t necessarily the most compatible galpals in the world. Young men can’t come between them, but what about another woman? The interpersonal balance of Frankie, her family, and her long-time townie friends is disturbed when someone new enters their small circle. She is a bare-legged coquette named Josee (Joelle Carter).
A temptress on a mission to find the path of least resistance, Josee isn’t malicious. She’s just looking to have things as easy as possible. Sexual charms and favors are what she trades in to get by. And she’s fairly indiscriminant about where she spreads her sunshine.

Nicola, who’s on to her in a flash, abhors the interloper. Frankie, however, is fascinated by Josee, who is so comfortable with her lithe body and so open with her sexuality; everything the reticent, overall-wearing Frankie is not.

Josee leaves a wake. But she isn’t the only stranger who makes an impression that Summer. A young latter-day hippie from Texas, an affable tie-dye merchant named Heath (Jamie Harrold), also wanders into town and starts courting the wary Frankie.

Audiences primed on melodrama and action may spend all 93 minutes of Swimming waiting for something earth-shatteringly significant to happen. Nothing BIG ever does. Yet all of the story’s small events, and the ways in which Frankie responds to them, prove that sea change can be subtle. The film’s young hero fully enters her womanhood, right before our eyes. By the end of the few weeks covered by the film, Frankie is more decisive and more empowered to live her own life—with or without a motor vehicle.

Lauren Ambrose, who must express a great deal of personal growth on Frankie’s part, with a minimum of dialogue and even less action, does so brilliantly. The film rests on her sturdy young shoulders. And she carries the movie with ease.

Swimming definitely falls into my "don’t miss it" category of films. Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done. Right now, the film is scheduled to expand from Boston only to "selected cities." I hope that it somehow finds a larger audience. Just as I hope that young Lauren Ambrose finds the limitless film career that she so obviously deserves.

Kathi Maio never learned to swim. But she is nevertheless torn by her contradictory need to both go with the flow and rock the boat.

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