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Listless Women and Life Realizations in The Lifeguard and Afternoon Delight

Features
by Kerensa Cadenas
August 23, 2013 12:15 PM
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Kristen Bell in The Lifeguard, Kathryn Hahn in Afternoon Delight

Entering into the late twenties--one becomes increasingly accustomed to seeing life's so-called major plot points swelling around them--high school reunions, careers, friends getting married and discussing the square feet of perfectly decorated co-purchased homes, Instagrams of adorable mini-me children playing and others starting ahead on the intimidating road of beginning their own families.

But what happens when those plot points aren't linear or if they are should they be? Two films opening next Friday explore the experiences of women on both sides of the coin--Liz W. Garcia's The Lifeguard and Jill Soloway's Afternoon Delight.

The Lifeguard , directed and written by Garcia, follows Leigh (Kristen Bell)--a seemingly together woman at the cusp of 30. She's working as a journalist in New York--a dream--but covering the weird beats that are less than ideal. Leigh's also involved with a gorgeous co-worker but he's engaged. The pieces that Leigh's life contain are rooted in what she wanted but are grossly distorted.

She feels frayed at the edges--Bell gives her a listlessness that fuzzes into the edges of the New York City chaos that surrounds her. When she finally snaps, Leigh runs back to her hometown and to her reluctant parents. She secures her old high school job as a lifeguard and quickly reverts back into teen life. Reconnecting with her old friends, Mel (Mamie Gummer) and Todd (Martin Starr), both of whom have found a comfortable grown-up groove in their hometown, Leigh shakes things up for all of them. Soon the trio are getting drunk and smoking pot in the woods with a group of skateboarder teens who hang around the pool where Leigh works.

As Leigh dives deeper and deeper into pushing away responsibility, she begins an illicit affair with Little Jason (David Lambert) --one of the skateboarders. Even though, Leigh knows what she's doing is wrong her relationship with Little Jason brings her back to life, primarily because she can focus on his problems rather on her own. Leigh's surrounded by people who she inadvertently pulls into her own inner chaos while being unable to acknowledge what she's looking for.

Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), in Soloway's Afternoon Delight which she wrote and directed), has seemingly checked off all the boxes on the prescribed list--she's married to a great guy (Josh Radnor), lives in a gorgeous house in Los Angeles and has an adorable kid. Despite everything she has, Rachel is bored. She's tired of the group of moms she has to associate with, she doesn't know how to interact with her son and her sex life is nonexistent. In order to try to spice things up, she and her husband go to a strip club. The spicing up doesn't work out, but Rachel becomes obsessed with saving McKenna (Juno Temple), a young stripper who gave her a lap dance.

As Rachel and McKenna become friends, Rachel welcomes McKenna into her home as their live-in nanny. The friendship with McKenna seems to reawaken Rachel or at least gives her a sense of purpose. While Rachel wants to save McKenna from a life that in contrast to her own seems undesirable, McKenna doesn't want to be saved. This revelation causes Rachel to rethink what she's been doing with McKenna which becomes a catalyst for her to really look at what's making her unhappy. Hahn plays Rachel with a mix of self-deprecation and a similar listlessness to Bell in The Lifeguard.

Both films drop the audience into the messy portraits of Leigh and Rachel. While it can make for a compelling exploration of the emotional confusion and isolation both are experiencing, it also can stunt that audience connection with both protagonists. As soon as we leap into the portrait, we are pushed back out again without a clear idea what happens to Leigh and Rachel next. While that ambiguity can feel refreshing, it can also be frustrating.

Despite small flaws, The Lifeguard and Afternoon Delight give honest and insightful portrayals of two women, one whose life ticked the boxes, and one whose path changed drastically, and shows us the messy, confusing and outright bad decisions it takes to get them to a place to be honest with themselves.

The Lifeguard and Afternoon Delight open on August 30th. The Lifeguard is available on ITunes now.

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