Robert J. Siegel's Swimming is set in the teeming oceanside resort of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where the scent of Coppertone mingles with the promise of sex and the certainty of getting drunk. College boys cruise the boardwalk, trying out primitive pickup lines. A surly doorman at the local dance club gives his young patrons lessons in social distinction. Suntanned girls preen and lean-muscled boys slap each other's backs. But there's an unmistakable tone of desperation in their hard partying. Director Siegel, a college film professor who only occasionally makes a movie (he caused a stir with Parades, a harsh early look at the Vietnam War), captures perfectly the split personality of a beach town in midseason -- the way its overheated air of frolic is offset by the cruelty of shifting loyalties and disposable relationships.
To be sure, the movie's heroine, a shy, awkward redhead named Frankie Wheeler (Lauren Ambrose), finds herself excluded. Frankie's a native -- her parents, retired in Arizona, started up the plain-Jane café she now runs with her belligerent older brother (Josh Pais) -- but because she's pale, pudgy and passive, she has no entry to the Darwinian social swim where we find her ill-tempered best friend, Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), who runs a tattoo shop, or sleek newcomer Josee (Joelle Carter), who's landed a waitress job at the restaurant purely on her good looks.
Ambrose, who plays Claire Fisher in the HBO hit Six Feet Under, gives us a beautifully detailed portrait of a girl at a crossroads. Without indulging in cheap sentiment or melodramatic tricks, she slowly but surely reveals to us the yearnings of an outsider more sensitive than most people to the value of friendship and the sting of rejection. When pretty Joelle takes a liking to her, Frankie sees both the authenticity and the manipulation in it. When a clumsy boy named Heath (Jamie Harrold), who sells tie-dyed shirts from his ratty van, pays attention, she weighs his words more carefully than reckless Nicola or easy-come, easy-go Joelle ever would -- despite the thrill she feels.
What Siegel and this richly talented young actress give us, in fact, is a study of a soul in the making. This is the summer when Frankie Wheeler will glimpse the possibilities of romance, stick up for a difficult friend despite the trouble in it and finally challenge her bullying brother. But the movie surpasses these milestones so subtly that we scarcely notice Frankie's voice. Instead, we hear something like her heartbeat, growing ever stronger. A girl usually bundled up in bib overalls, she may now even choose to go swimming.
The deft touch and unfailing emotional tone of this intelligent little movie derive from wonderfully shaded performances all around (Lowe is especially effective as the explosive Nicola), but its real success comes from the ideal combination of a seasoned director who understands the nuances of human behavior and a young screenwriter who's close enough to her own postadolescence that she remembers every detail. Not surprisingly, Lisa Bazadona, the script's originator, worked summers as a tattoo artist in Myrtle Beach to put herself through college.
Formerly one of Siegel's star students at the State University of New York-Purchase, Bazadona submitted the original draft of the Swimming screenplay as her senior thesis in 1997. Siegel optioned it; then he and his regular co-writer, Grace Woodard, did some tinkering. The result is a lovely piece of writing brought to life by a terrific cast, a vivid sense of place and, not incidentally, some perfectly chosen pop tunes by such as Bree Sharp, Leona Naess, Smog and Tin Star. As for Ambrose, her big-screen debut is a revelation. As Frankie Wheeler is searching for her true self, we discover a sublime new actress.