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The Onion

Swimming has a sense of proportion rare and refreshing for an American film.
September 4, 2002
Scott Tobias

A modest, determinedly low-key character study, Robert J. Siegel's Swimming takes its title and much of its appealing spirit from the song "River Guard," the powerful centerpiece of Smog's 1999 album Knock Knock album. The lyric is told from the perspective of a prison guard who loves to observe his charges on swimming expeditions—the one time when they get a taste of freedom and inner peace, floating in a river "unburdened and relaxed." That same sense of yearning tugs at Lauren Ambrose (of HBO's Six Feet Under), a Myrtle Beach waitress who watches scads of tourists descend on the town and evaporate just as quickly, leaving her behind for yet another year. Her envy is magnified by her inability to fit in with the beachcombers: Pale and slightly fleshy, she wears baggy overalls in the hot sun, never goes near the water, and is too shy to socialize with the rowdy spring breakers. She bats around the idea of buying a car and skipping town, but spends most of her free time loitering aimlessly with her friend Jennifer Dundas Lowe, a punkish body-piercing artist she's known since second grade. The mirror image of 1993's superior Ruby In Paradise—another independent film about a young woman's self-discovery in a Florida tourist trap—Swimming opens in-season instead of off-season, but its heroine's isolation is just as acutely felt. Stuck waiting tables at a burger joint she inherited with her brother (Josh Pais), Ambrose is shaken by the arrival of Joelle Carter, who gets a job at the restaurant based strictly on her good looks. Though Carter is a terrible waitress, her charms are not lost on Ambrose, whose growing infatuation with the newcomer edges into uncomfortable territory and opens up a rift with the jealous Lowe. At the same time, Ambrose is pursued by a charming stoner (Jamie Harrold) who lives with two mangy Labradors in a busted-out van and sells tie-dyed shirts to make ends meet. Content to do little more than illuminate Ambrose's small corner of the world, Swimming has a sense of proportion that's rare and refreshing for an American film, which may explain why it languished without a distributor for two years. If anything, Siegel is almost too tasteful, nearly to the point where his coming-of-age story loses color and purpose. But he finds a mesmerizing presence in Ambrose, a terrific young actress who carries the film without a second of showiness, confident in her ability to simply embody a character who keeps her true feelings under wraps. Centering a drama on a passive observer is always a dicey prospect, but to Siegel and his star's immense credit, they're slow to bring her out of her shell.

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