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The MetroWest Daily

'Swimming' to new career heights: Newton's Jennifer Dundas plays a different sort of character in her new film
Chris Bergeron
April 4, 2002

Since her first Broadway appearance at age 10, Jennifer Dundas has distinguished herself playing wholesome sisters and daughters to big-name stars in hits like "Hotel New Hampshire" and "Legal Eagles."

Now, the young Newton actress plays a spiky-haired, devil-may-care body piercer in "Swimming," an independent film with lots of guts and heart.

Director/producer Robert J. Siegel's fourth film observes the coming-of-age conflicts of red-haired tomboy Frankie Wheeler played by Lauren Ambrose (of "Six Feet Under") with a compassionate eye for an awkward adolescent's search for direction and love.

Shot on location at Myrtle Beach, S.C., "Swimming" explores the summer mating rituals of kids poised on the cusp of adulthood with bittersweet humor that never stoops for cheap laughs.

Dundas plays Nicola, Frankie's reckless childhood pal whose flamboyant good looks inadvertently entrap her best friend in the role of a reluctant sidekick unable to spread her wings and fly on her own.

A veteran of theater, films and television, Dundas auditioned to play Nicola because she was excited by the script's honesty and the chance to broaden her roles.

"I actually haven't played this kind of role before. On stage and film, I'm usually sweeter," Dundas said from her New York City apartment. "But, there's certainly a streak of Nicola in me."

In earlier movies, Dundas played Diane Keaton's daughter in "The First Wives Club" and Jodi Foster's sister in "Hotel New Hampshire."

Throughout the film, Dundas' well-meaning but reckless Nicola attempts to choreograph Frankie's slowly awakening sexuality.

With her gamine looks and sad, all-knowing eyes, Ambrose's Frankie struggles to cope with the competing attentions of a gorgeous waitress at the diner she owns with her brother and a goofy but sincere traveling tie-dye salesman.

While Nicola's attempts to stage manage Frankie's love life precipitate an ascending series of crises, Dundas portrays her sympathetically as blind to her own faults and motivated primarily by friendship.

"Swimming" has its national premiere tomorrow at Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.

Over 40 screenings, the film has earned numerous awards and critical raves on the independent film festival circuit.

The Hollywood Reporter described "Swimming" as "resonant, entertaining, and charming. ... As much about family, friendship and coming of age as it is about summer love and romance."

While "Swimming" features occasional profanity and mostly off-screen sexuality, Dundas considers it a good film for adolescents because of its honest portrayal of adolescents searching for genuine friendship in the midst of a throwaway culture.

"I think 'Swimming' encourages kids to feel free to explore who they are and helps them find the courage to become that person. We all get stuck playing roles. I feel we all have the right to say who we are," she said.

Siegel said he wanted to film "Swimming" because "of the screenplay's real core of honesty about this phase of growing up."

"As a film, 'Swimming' subscribes to real life not movie conventions," said Siegel, a 59-year-old professor of film at SUNY Purchase College in New York. "It has a real emotional resonance without any hokey moments. People who see it say they feel like they've been on a journey."

Siegel compared "Swimming" to European films for being "honest to life without big cathartic moments."

Asked if "Swimming" was a film parents and children should see together, he said viewers of any age would appreciate its "understated sincerity and truthfulness."

He raved that Dundas' performance provided the film's "driving force."

"Jenny was brilliant. She has great technique and intelligence. Jenny was her character. As an actress, she has an impeccable sense of honesty," he said.

While declining to specify the budget, he said he raised sufficient funds in two days for the five-week shoot and actors who worked for basic union fees.

Siegel made "Swimming" from a screenplay derived from the senior thesis of his student, Lisa Bazadona.

"I wouldn't make a film I don't believe in. The truth of Frankie's experiences are universal," he said.

Just a few weeks after the opening of "Swimming," Dundas will appear in "Changing Lanes," a big-budget thriller starring Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson.

Over the years, Dundas has compiled a broadly diverse collection of roles including 10 movies, four Broadway plays, 13 off-Broadway and regional productions and numerous television appearances.

The daughter of Dorothy and John Dundas, a Newton psychiatrist and taxi business owner, Dundas majored in theater at Brown University.

She began acting at 10 in the play "Grownups" which began as a regional production and traveled to Broadway.

Dundas called "Swimming" a "great movie that's done really well at festivals on the independent film circuit."

"I think people are ready to see an 'indie' film not set in New York or Los Angeles that explores the interior side of growing up," she said. "I really believe in this movie."

People who want to learn more about the film can visit its official Internet Web site,

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