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by David Hunter

A familiar story about an awkward and under-romanced young woman's coming to terms with herself and the world, "Swimming" is exceptionally well-made and impressed screening audiences at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Directed and co-written by Robert J. Siegel (co-producer and co-writer of HBO's "Descending Angel"), the under-$500,000 indie bowed at Slamdance, made the trip to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and could prove to be a prestigious, limited-release for an enterprising distributor.

Siegel's classy approach is a selling point for more-patient adult audiences and women from teens on up. The likable and focused cast includes Lauren Ambrose ("Can't Hardly Wait"), Jennifer Dundas Lowe ("The First Wives Club"), Joelle Carter ("The Horse Whisperer") and Jamie Harold ("Erin Brockovich").

Set in Myrtle Beach, S.C., but with situations and characters that are universally recognizable, "Swimming" is a carefully composed and orchestrated drama, with a fair amount of character-driven comedy and totally involving performances. On screen for most of the film's 90 minutes, Ambrose is excellent as the local lonely-heart Frankie, kind of plain, always sincere, the withdrawing sister of and co-restaurateer with grumpy Neil (Josh Pais).

She works hard and doesn't complain, content to let Neil be the boss and deal with all the headaches of running a beachside cafe. Located next to a piercing salon owned and operated by Frankie's best friend, Nicola (Lowe), the diner is a recurring location, as is the beach. A steady stream of vacationers creates an expectant romantic atmosphere that Frankie is unable to take advantage of, while a male contemporary, Brad (James Villemaire), is a tanned young bohemian who scores easily.

While cuter and wilder Nicola is a good friend to her, Frankie finds a slightly older, more mature role model in tall heartbreaker Josee (Carter), Brad's free-spirited new girlfriend who is hired by Neil as a waitress. Self-assured, able to handle men of all persuasions, taking a special interest in Frankie that almost becomes romantic, Josee is the spark that causes the lead to take a chance or two.

Enter Heath (Harrold), a pot-smoking hawker of tie-dyed shirts, who is similarly a sensitive soul and social nobody. It doesn't happen at the speed of light -- and where it arrives by the film's end is poignant moment that's disarmingly mundane - but Frankie and Heath hit it off, and that helps her handle a suddenly jealous and needy Nicola, as well as the calamity that half occurs when Josee has a fling with Neil.

A film professor at Purchase College in New York, Siegel optioned the script by one of his students, Lisa Bazadona, and then wrote the final draft with Grace Woodard. Inspired by "Marty," and having not directed a feature since the 1980 antiwar film "The Line," Siegel shows uncommon attention to the details of filmmaking - from the subtle direction to the soundtrack, which is not loaded down with distracting songs.

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