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One of the most refreshing recent trends in film is the new honesty in the coming-of-age genre. In movies as disparate as L.I.E. and Slums of Beverly Hills, behaviors and relationships that would have spelled certain peril for young leads even 10 years ago are now depicted as just part of the messy maturation process. Every youngster makes unsuitable connections, and most of them somehow fulfill a need—even if that need is merely to pass the time or get in trouble.
But the most relieving aspect of the new coming-of-age picture, for those who have seen too many of them and don’t believe a moment anymore, is the jettisoning of the perfectly transformative interlude. If anyone has ever undergone a complete sexual and psychological ripening over the course of One Magic Summer, I stand corrected—feel free to write your screenplay.
In the meantime, there is a crop of new movies that show adolescence as the absurd, desultory crapshoot that it is. In the gentle slice of life Swimming, director Robert J. Siegel toys with the Magic Summer formula, adopting all of its classic elements but resisting its obvious conclusions. It’s high season at Myrtle Beach on the Redneck Riviera, and 20-ish Frankie Wheeler (Lauren Ambrose of HBO’s Six Feet Under) will be spending the summer serving beer and fries to crowds in her family’s restaurant, which she half-owns along with her married brother, the Wheeler parents having decamped and put the restaurant and its profits in the siblings’ care.
This setup is part of Siegel’s vision of the resort town as service-sector kiddieland, owned and run by teens and young people who can be seen wiping down tables, piercing passers-by, and selling T-shirts as bustling families and drunken students cruise the boardwalks. Frankie is not particularly unhappy—she’s just ill-suited to the skin-baring, pleasure-loving, temporary vibe of a beach town. She shlubs around in overalls and a T-shirt that’s the murky dark green of elderly black cotton. Her best friend, Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), is a troublemaking firecracker who works next door at a piercing booth and spends her evenings tramping the boardwalk and sassing the college-age cruisers driving slowly by.
Formula offers two possible intrusions into this dull townie cycle of exhausting work and frantic fun: the sexy rival or the visiting bad boy. Just for kicks, Siegel throws in both, after which he does nothing predictable except sit back and watch Nicola go off the rails. Beautiful beach babe Josee (Joelle Carter) takes a job at the restaurant and a shine to Frankie, while the romantically named Heath (Jamie Harrold) rolls up in a shabby van to sell tie-dyed T-shirts. Frankie’s friendship with Josee sends Nicola reeling, and the flouncing departure of her thrill-seeking shrillness is a relief to the audience as well as to her best friend. Josee isn’t ostentatiously fun the way Nicola is, but she’s pretty and angst-free, and her homoerotic tenderness toward Frankie makes the waitress feel completely new.
This love story is one of friendship—weird, unresolved friendship. The flame-haired Ambrose can zoom from eyelashless frump to extravagant Pre-Raphaelite beauty in seconds, and the bloom Frankie acquires in Josee’s light is a marvel. Ambrose’s unrevealing eyes and humorous mouth give her an air of watchful grace, which blossoms into a look of wary adoration as she’s pulled onto the night sands by Josee. Carter has a bit of Bridget Fonda’s flirtatious square lower lip and regal carriage; she’s a rangy and real teen dream, as indigenous to the ephemeral high-season shores as the tackle-and-sunglasses shops.
The battle for Frankie’s heart—among Josee, the impulsive Nicola, and Heath the kindly, awkward drifter/stoner—is played out with all the high drama of youth against the woozy backdrop of beach fun. Everyone is trying to articulate feelings while drunk, stoned, crazed with lust, carried away by a dance beat, or shaping as indolent a life as possible. Free from symbolism or heavy-handed conclusions, Swimming is an endorsement of the confusion and yearning that young people endure whatever their circumstances.
Photographed in the dim gold glow of the privileged light that shines through expensive Upper East Side windows, Gary Winick’s Tadpole tracks with wit and flair the Thanksgiving holiday of one Oscar Grubman. Fifteen-year-old Oscar (Aaron Stanford), a precocious French-speaking, philosophy-devouring prep-school sophomore, knows exactly what he wants from the adult world: the love of his beautiful, poised stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). Oscar fancies himself a knight whose courtly appreciation of women—he inhales the fragrance from Eve’s scarf and lovingly makes her a sandwich for lunch—is proof of his maturity. But his idealistic passion for his in-house lady fair is fundamentally childish; he needs very badly to be yanked into the earthy realms of realistic sexual desire.
Mentions of sex give Oscar the willies. If he’s a “40-year-old trapped in a 15-year-old’s body,” as a classmate notes, he has none of a grown-up’s understanding of desire’s disruptive power. Home for the holiday with his history-professor dad (John Ritter)—the kind of gooey intellectual who prefaces his Thanksgiving dinner speech with an apology to Native Americans—Oscar plans to spring his secret on the cool, sympathetic Eve. But when Dad scoots Oscar out the door to walk a comely classmate home, the boy’s frustration with the immaturity of his coevals drives him into the arms of Eve’s mischievously sexy best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth). The gorgeous chiropractor is utterly cavalier with fragile Oscar’s morning-after squirming; she lies with the ease and sumptuous pleasure of a seasoned seductress, telling her dull, doughy boyfriend, Phil, that Oscar “had a very knotted muscle.”
Though a little chicken-necked and droopy-lipped, Oscar is self-assured and passingly mature, which charms most of the older women in his purview. The members of Diane’s lunch group fawn over his philosophical flights and attentive ear; to her glee, they even slip him their numbers. Oscar refers to Puccini and tackles big themes in his impassioned conversations, but he doesn’t understand why the down-to-earth Diane frightens him. Or that his insistence on poeticizing Eve ends up turning her into an abstraction; only when he confesses does Eve become human—confused, flattered, and appalled.
Tadpole is as funny, elegant, and smart as the milieu it explores. Winick pokes gentle fun at Oscar’s passion with a cinematic in-joke that sends up the kid’s-art-movie classic The Red Balloon while Oscar daydreams a dopey, childish fantasy of romance—him and Eve clicking champagne glasses and whirling on the Central Park carousel. Later, Oscar pastes on sideburns borrowed from a dog’s fur to rekindle Eve’s youthful ardor for Elvis, with predictably silly results. Throughout, Stanford adds shadings to the young-swain character established in The Graduate and refined in Rushmore: Oscar is charming, impulsive, and beset with expectations only someone young, rich, and wrapped up in his own drama wouldn’t recognize as being absolutely impossible. CP