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[whitespace] 'Swimming'
Suddenly, This Summer Young Frankie (Lauren Ambrose) confronts a world of contradictions during the dog days in 'Swimming.'

Shallow Waters

Robert J. Siegel's 'Swimming' does the crawl through one young girl's troubled summer

By Traci Vogel

LIFE AS A CHUNKY, lily-white redhead in a beach town might be tough enough, but for Frankie Wheeler, it's made even tougher by an uncertainty about where life is going and at what angle to take it. This is the setup behind Swimming, one of those little films about adolescent existential problems indie directors love to mull over. Swimming is sunny enough, awash in the bright days and neon nights of Myrtle Beach, S.C., where women wear bikini tops and pukka shells, and men sport bleached crew cuts.

Frankie (Lauren Ambrose) helps run a retro-style burger joint with her surly brother, Neil (Josh Pais). In her spare time, she hangs out with the owner of the shop next door, Nicola's Piercings (Nicola is played by Jennifer Dundas Lowe). Too young to drink legally, Frankie nonetheless finds herself reluctantly brought by Nicola to bars and clubs by Nicola so she can sit and watch the gyrating beach bunnies with a pained look. It's not that she's snobby, exactly--it's just that she doesn't fit in, and we come to realize this is partly why Nicola likes her: Frankie is scant competition.

Competition, however, arrives in the form of Josee (Joelle Carter), a beautiful blonde drifter whom Frankie invites to stay. Frankie offers Josee a job at the burger joint, where her general incompetence is made up for by her good looks--at least in the eyes of Frankie's brother, at least for a while--and Frankie, Nicola and Josee make up a tempestuous trio volleying vicious eye rolls for the first part of the summer.

Then, Nicola falls in love with an off-balance jarhead and descends into violence. Frankie can only watch, confused and distracted by the sexual voodoo Josee seems to have her under. Is Josee a lesbian? Is Frankie? How responsible is Frankie for rescuing Nicola, who's never been a great friend anyway? Is Frankie's brother running the family business into the ground? And what about that mysterious boy in a van, the one who sells tie-dye shirts for a living?

Yes--what about him? In coming-of-age films on the scale of Swimming, for the sake of the plot it's not so much the morality that matters as just making a decision one way or the other, damn it. Swimming treads murky, slow-moving waters for much of its length, and when Nicola finally takes a turn against the tide it's both a relief and a little too late for us to care. When will indie directors cast off the neat wrap-up of the after-school special? Or maybe Swimming qualifies primarily as an after-school special because the script has "recent film-school graduate" written all over it. Swimming creaks through its revelations, and although the actors, especially Ambrose as Frankie, are competent, one can't help but feel that this old summer story is a little too faded from overuse.

Swimming (Unrated; 98 min.), directed by Robert J. Siegel, written by Lisa Bazadona, Grace Woodard and Siegel, photographed by John Leuba and starring Lauren Ambrose, Jennifer Dundas Lowe, Josh Pais and Joelle Carter, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the August 22-28, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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