When Josee (Joelle Carter), waitress, drifter and all-around good-time gal, struts into a beach-town diner, it's clear she's about to lay waste to the hearts around her. Sinuous and supremely self-assured, she's a classic movie vixen, and director Robert J. Siegel knows to give her the proper entrance.
The character veers from archetype, however, in the triangle she creates, one that concerns two other young women and friendship more than lust. Though there's some of that, too.
Keenly observed and refreshingly natural, "Swimming" gets the details right,
from its promenade of barely clad bodies in Myrtle Beach, S.C., to the adrenaline jolt of a sudden lunch rush at the diner. This film, sort of a "Ruby in Paradise" with more erotic intrigue, might have been lost -- it was made in 2000 -- did it not star Lauren Ambrose, Claire from HBO's "Six Feet Under."
Ambrose brings the same detached hopefulness she shows on "Six Feet" to the role of Frankie, a college-age woman running the coffee shop with her older brother. The actress' face lights up with pure wonder when Frankie spies Josee (Frankie and Josee, get it?). She's got a crush, as does her brother and half the town.
You can see the appeal. Josee's exotic (having been to Hawaii) and pays attention to what Frankie says, often touching her hand for a little longer than is polite. In contrast, Frankie's longtime best friend (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), a hellion and professional body piercer, is less than fully engaged with Frankie.
The friend is attentive enough to see a threat in Josee, however, and scenes of the three together are studies in complex female friendship. Frankie's new friend and her old one are natural adversaries, since each is invested in being the light of her life. But the old friend can't compete with the newcomer's whiff of sexual intrigue.
Dundas Lowe, a New York stage actress who played Diane Keaton's lesbian daughter in "The First Wives' Club," gives the standout performance here, turning her spitfire role into something uncliched. The character might be ornery and jealous, but the actress lends her an undercurrent of true devotion and a sense of betrayal that really stings.
As Josee, Carter seems too reserved at first, but then again, the quiet ones often are the most insinuating. She gives the character a "who, me?" disingenuousness, mixed with genuine affection for Frankie. That Josee shows similar affection for most men in town is another story.
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