Young woman, small town, modest dreams, no car - but few cliches, either, in this quirky coming-of-ager set in a South Carolina of not so long ago but far away.
Much may and should be made of Lauren ("Six Feet Under") Ambrose's captivating performance in "Swimming," but she's not the only element keeping it afloat. Directed by Robert J. Siegel, this contemporary small- town character play sets itself up like the classic, coming-of-age voyage of sexual discovery - Is she a lesbian? Are all men congenital idiots? - and then fails to find a cliche it doesn't want to demolish.
The narration that bookends the picture is straight out of "Ruby in Paradise" and is spoken by Frankie (Ambrose), the silenced partner and full- time waitress in the diner she owns with her domineering brother in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Frankie is the home-grown foreigner in a town where nothing seems to happen, at least to her, which is de rigueur for the alienated teen movie. Much less standard issue is her relationship with her town, which oftentimes seems a lot like Eddie Albert's in "Green Acres": She's the one sane person in a burg full of loonies. Her pal Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe) runs a piercing parlor and more or less has to aspire to trashiness.
The new waitress, Josee (Joelle Carter), who wasn't exactly hired for her service-industry talents, keeps what talents she does have on prominent and active display. The one boy who pays attention to Frankie - Heath (Jamie Harrold), the nomadic van driver, tie-dyed T-shirt salesman and multiple dog owner - seems a few channels short of a cable package. Frankie is so far ahead of the pack she might have arrived by charter spaceship.
But Ambrose is a handful, not just for the way she eats up the screen emotionally but physically as well. There are times when Frankie, her sexuality cloaked in bib overalls and sagging T's, is the quintessential wallflower - especially when she's being contrasted with the statuesque Josee. Other times, she looks like a diminutive Geena Davis. Her performance, though, is the far more interesting thing, mapping the entire complex range of sentiments inside a girl who's never thought herself attractive, never thought she'd have to think about it and when faced with actual options, doesn't quite know where she is.
"Swimming" isn't a major film. Nor does it try to be. But what, in the end, is a major film? If it's one that accomplishes what it sets out to do, then we ought to correct ourselves.
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