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The Star-Ledger

Take a dip in a coming-of-age story for grownups
Three Stars
September 13, 2002
Stephen Whitty

The only thing surer than growing up are the indie movies documenting it.

Over the last decade, coming-of-age stories have practically become their own genre -- and, like every genre, they have their own clichés. There is the brief time frame (usually, a single summer). There is the teenage protagonist (who sometimes narrates) and the "wild" best friend. There are lessons learned and people forever changed.

"Swimming," a new indie film, observes all those conventions faithfully. Yet director Robert J. Siegel also observes the details of real life. And its gentle story by Lisa Bazadona -- and its low-key cast -- help make it a growing-up story for grown-ups.

Set in the redneck Riviera of Myrtle Beach, S.C., "Swimming" details one summer in the life of Frankie, a young woman sleepwalking through her early 20s. Out of school and out of options, she spends days waiting tables at the restaurant she co-owns with her older brother; she spends nights watching her more worldly friend pick up partying soldiers.

And then a flirty young waitress joins the hash house, and Frankie starts feeling a little ... odd.

You might guess at the sexual awakenings that come next, based on Frankie's androgynous name and boyish clothes (even in 90-degree-heat, she is hiding in overalls). Yet you'd be wrong. Because "Swimming" isn't a simple coming-out story, or even a simple growing-up one. Instead it's a story about options, and how Frankie begins to realize she has more than she knew.

Lauren Ambrose, currently the glum Claire on HBO's "Six Feet Under," is wonderful as Frankie, capturing the confusion of a young woman trying to sort out her feelings. She is nicely partnered by Jennifer Dundas Lowe, as the edgy Nicole, and Joelle Carter, as the ambisexual Josee. (The male actors are good too, but ultimately inconsequential; this is a movie about girlfriends.)

The thoughtful "Swimming" was shot two years ago but is only getting distribution now; bookings have been exceedingly, cautiously slow, opening first in Boston and then adding a medium-sized city or two at a time. Years ago, this platforming strategy was commonplace for "art" films; today, when small films gamble all on a joint Manhattan/L.A. opening, it is almost forgotten.

It would be gratifying if it worked here.

"Swimming" isn't an astonishing film or even a completely satisfying one, dramatically (the ending comes a little too quickly and quietly for that). Yet it stands, along with "Ruby in Paradise," as a vibrant snapshot of the beachtown life. And for some of those lucky teenagers who will wander in tonight, mistakenly thinking they're going to "Swimfan," it may provide a rare and very grown-up treat.

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