Lauren Ambrose, the dark-eyed young redhead who plays Claire Fisher on the HBO series "Six Feet Under," gives a quietly effective, disarmingly naturalistic performance in Robert J. Siegel's "Swimming," an independent feature made before Ms. Ambrose's television success.
The screenplay, of which Mr. Siegel is a co-author, breaks little new ground in the teenage coming-of-age genre: innocence is still hard to leave behind, sex is still something both wonderful and frightening, and adults persist in revealing the feet of clay that support their seemingly heroic bearing.
But as a director, Mr. Siegel steers admirably clear of the genre's ever-threatening sentimentality. "Swimming" is an unusually dry-eyed, even analytical approach to material that is generally played for maximum moisture.
The setting is Myrtle Beach, S.C., one of those old Southern resort towns that explode into life during spring break. Frankie (Ms. Ambrose) is a tomboyish late adolescent who hides her figure under voluminous overalls, while her best friend, Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), a body-piercer by profession, prefers bikini tops and skimpy cutoffs.
Frankie works at the modest diner that once belonged to her parents and now, since her parents retired to Arizona, belongs to her and her older brother, Neil (Josh Pais). Next door to Nicola's piercing stand, the restaurant is the one thing that keeps her in Myrtle Beach, a town she has almost outgrown.
The summer season has barely started when Josee (Joelle Carter) turns up at the diner, asking for a job. Neil hires her, less because of her talents as a waitress than for her lithe good looks and available manner. Though Frankie begins by resenting Josee, she discovers there is much she can learn from her; soon, Josee has supplanted Nicola as her best friend.
The finest passages in "Swimming," which opens today in Manhattan, deal with the tense relationship among the three young women. At one moment they are sexual rivals; at another, innocent kids at play on the beach. Mr. Siegel is particularly good at pointing out the complex psychological transactions that are going on among his characters without turning didactic. Josee is not an admirable character; she casually takes advantage of men and may be taking advantage of Frankie. But the example of her freedom and self-assurance has a lot to offer the younger, shyer girl, who learns to profit from it.
Mr. Siegel has been around a while he directed his first independent feature, "Parades," in 1972 but he hasn't yet achieved true fluency as a director. His images are flat and inexpressive, and his relaxed rhythms sometimes trail off into inertia. But he has an honest, direct approach to his characters, which is far more rare these days than technical facility. Without exaggerating their lovability or condescending to their foolishness, Mr. Siegel makes vivid, likable people out of his three protagonists as they affect one another and are affected in turn.
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