Director: John Polson
Cast: Jesse Bradford, Erika Christensen, Shiri Appleby, Clayne Crawford, James DeBello, Kate Burton, Jason Ritter, Kia Goodwin, Dan Hedaya
MPAA Rating: (for mature thematic elements, sexual content, disturbing images and language)
Running Time: 1:24
Release Date: 9/6/02
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Review by Mark Dujsik
Movies aimed at specific age groups are difficult to review. Is it the job of the critic discussing the film in question to try and place him or herself in the target audience’s shoes, or should the film be judged the same as any other movie? The answer, of course, is the second, because the moment a critic bases his or her thoughts and feelings on the supposed audience’s supposed reaction, said critic has violated and devalued his or her opinion. I know as much about how a teenage audience will react to Swimfan as I do an adult audience, which is to say absolutely nothing. I do know that Swimfan is something of a rarity for a teen movie. Looking at it solely as a teen movie, it is a cut above the rest, but there are elements here that should be appreciated on their own merits. This is not some idiot-plot driven thriller where the characters are just another, generic piece of the puzzle. No, these characters are distinctly separate from the puzzle, and they’re in charge of putting it together.
Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) has the ideal life of a high school student. He’s a star swimmer, attracting a set of college scouts who are prepared to give him a full ride to Stanford if he excels in the upcoming meet. He works at a hospital, where he gets to help people, prepare for an actual job later in life if the swimming falls through, and, I’m sure, make a pretty nice paycheck every two weeks. And perhaps most importantly, he has a girlfriend named Amy (Shiri Appleby), who’s kind, supportive, not trying to push him when it comes to their future—the type of person who would be annoying if she weren’t so genuine. It’s all about to change (it’s always about to change) when Ben meets Madison Bell (Erika Christensen) and helps her open her locker. Later he almost runs her down with his truck and offers her a ride home, only to discover she left a notebook in his car. He returns it, and the two go out to eat and then to school’s pool, where Madison seduces Ben. Ben wants to keep it quiet and forget it ever happened, but Madison won’t have any of that.
When it comes down to it, this is essentially Fatal Attraction for teenagers. On a script level, the film is a series of predictable turns, and the dialogue is written in a way that only screenwriters Charles Bohl and Phillip Schneider think teenagers actually talk. Yet even with all of this, the movie works simply because the director is better than the material with which he’s presented. Australian actor-turned-director John Polson handles the script not as a simple-minded exploitative thriller but in a more subdued, relatively quiet and moody, manner. The material is taken seriously but at a low-key level, which is the right decision—anything more than this and it would all be quite silly. This is a director who understands concepts like irony and antithesis and isn’t afraid to use them when most other movies would be afraid the audience would miss it. A climactic drowning is intercut with one character giving another CPR. I also liked the way Polson uses Giles Nuttgen’s cinematography to give the film a more faded, ambient look as the situation worsens.
Most importantly, though, Polson cares about these characters. Ben isn’t a lifeless, dull jock but a young kid with a possibly bright future who makes one big mistake and spends the rest of the movie paying for it. This kid has a history—even if it is a rather familiar one (he had a drug problem and his father is no longer with his mother for, of course, cheating)—and we appreciate him the more for it. Many young actresses would jump at the chance to play a psychotic and would probably overplay it as a result, but Erika Christensen gives a prime example of stillness in a performance, just right for this kind of character. The conflict between the two, like in Fatal Attraction, provides the moral lesson of the film, but it is inherently skewed, like in Fatal Attraction. The guy has obviously wronged, but he wouldn’t be punished unless the girl is as messed up as she is—his sin is made almost insignificant by her actions. That’s why the role of the girlfriend is so important, and Shiri Appleby, giving the best and sure-to-be the most overlooked performance in the movie, plays her so we never forget the result of Ben’s actions.
Swimfan ends with a coda that most movies like this wouldn’t dream of adding, preferring instead a nice, happy ending where everything works out. This scene alone is wiser than the entire running length of most teenage movies. Here things aren’t as neatly wrapped up as they may seem, a great opportunity has probably passed by forever, and wounds this severe take time to heal.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.