[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Lifeguard belongs to that elect, if scarcely elite, class of film fondly designated “the nice little movie.” It would be a poor summer indeed that didn’t yield one or two specimens of this type (which I say rhetorically since it is a miserable movie summer but there’s Lifeguard anyway)—not that its modest feeling for decent folks of no particular distinction getting on with their lives as best they can would be out of season at any time. The storyline isn’t much; its cinematic narration, still less so. But it’s a friendly movie that manages to be ingratiating without flashing too bright a smile or scuffing its soles ostentatiously in the sand. Watching it, you like the people and expect to remember them—looks, stances, tones of voice—like a pleasant vacation in years to come.
Sam Elliott is particularly likable as a fellow fifteen years out of high school with eight straight summers and winters on the beach behind him; his younger brother has a better job, he’s starting to come up short of breath in the sprints, an old classmate holds out a more remunerative future as a Porsche salesman to him, but still, lifeguarding is what he does and he does it well. Lots of sunbrowned flesh, bulging bikinis, yearning teenies and compliant girlfriends, but the movie doesn’t invite us to keep a vicarious scorecard while waiting for retribution to play its ace in the last reel (which, as a matter of fact, doesn’t happen, since nothing like retribution is in order). Indeed, Elliott’s performance is remarkably satisfying for its refusal either to set his character up as a macho type (strutting or pathetic) or to suggest he’s a philosopher-king among beach bums with a richer sense of human values than anyone else around him. Most of the various women who form more or less tenuous liaisons with him are permitted a sense of individuation and self-possession that lifts them well above cut-out roles as sex-objects or implicit rebukes to Elliott’s cautiously maintained independence of long-term obligations.
Early on, a stewardess chum tells him his performance in the sack is characterized by “great technique but no feeling”; whether or not the film’s intention is to display Elliott’s emotional maturation over the present summer, his behavior tends emphatically to deny any want of humanity. This particular free soul is careful not to trespass on other private territories where lives are available for wounding, be they the erstwhile high-school sweetheart he can’t exploit as a one-night stand (however agreeable the idea seems to her), or a shy teenager trying on a little sexual bravado, or a hapless lurker in the ladies’ restroom who claims to be a cop doing undercover work. Anne Archer brings a mature eroticism to the role of the old girlfriend (she suggests a cross between the Françoise Fabian and Aurora Cornu of two Rohmer movies—and indeed, Lifeguard at times suggests an American Rohmer whose characters don’t happen to be intellectuals). As the teenager, Kathleen Quinlan is so heartbreakingly sweet and brave and trusting that I feel like a dirty old man for noticing. The script and direction tend to be noticeable phenomena only when they turn gauche (there is more than a little of the “Hey! It’s OK!” school of banality—though surely the dialogue is true to its milieu and to the speakers as well—and we have to sit through a couple watch-the-pretty-waves-while-we-play-a-song interludes), but somebody—writer, director, producers, the cast, maybe all of them in tacit understanding—enabled five or six reels of gently humane observation to happen, and I’m grateful.
Direction: Daniel Petrie. Screenplay: Ron Koslow. Cinematography: Ralph Woolsey.
The players: Sam Elliott, Anne Archer, Kathleen Quinlan, Parker Stevenson, Stephen Young.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson