ABOVE: DAVID LAMBERT. PHOTO BY ALBA TULL.
"Cringe-worthy" does not begin to describe The Lifeguard. The premise is familiar: Leigh (Kristen Bell) leaves a reporting job, a dead-end affair, and a small apartment in New York for a therapeutic stay in her Connecticut hometown, only to fall in love with the young, brooding Jason (David Lambert)—just the type of radical aversion to age-appropriateness that we're taught to admire in the age of Girls.
But The Lifeguard, written and directed by Liz W. Garcia, puts that eat-pray-love ethos up against an uncomfortable reality. Home in Connecticut is the site of estranged old friends, dysfunctional family, and suicidal teenagers. And Jason, the archetypically young, wild, and free kid that Leigh prizes, is so young that he's in high school. Leigh has come home to reorient herself in a place where everyone is lost, emotionally, morally, and existentially, and the film does not bother to invent romance, humor or redemption in their awkward personal failures.
Perhaps nothing calls the ethics of aimlessness into question as much as Leigh and Jason's relationship. Is it romantic? Is it constructive? Is it pedophilic—or even incestuous? Impropriety, something of a millennial virtue, comes to border dangerously on immorality. When we caught up with Lambert, who isn't much older than his character, he wasn't so sure.
ZACK ETHEART: I was describing the movie to a friend the other day, and I realized it sounds a lot more romantic than it actually is. Did you have any idea how dark it would get when you signed on?
DAVID LAMBERT: Yeah, I guess it was kind of a mix of both. I knew my character was on the darker side and that was sort of something that attracted me to him. I thought it would be fun to play a darker character since I hadn't before. This kid was completely his own thing. I had no idea about the movie, 'cause I didn't have a full script or anything, even in the process of auditioning, so I was still sort of figuring out Liz and her vision. And then once I read the script, I had actually already booked the role. The movise definitely is a little deceiving in how dark it gets, but I loved it because it was definitely one of the most challenging projects I've been a part of.
ETHEART: What was challenging about it for you?
LAMBERT: Oh, a few things. There's some content in the script and there are some scenes that were just really daunting, even just reading them at first. And then once I started having conversations about it with Liz and what Kristen was comfortable with doing—'cause you know, our characters, me and Kristen, we get quite intimate—it was just an interesting thing to be able to approach and to be able to talk out loud about. There's a love scene in a sense between our two characters, and I just remember that whole scene was almost blocked out, like choreography. We talked it out to that degree. That actually made me feel better. The whole thing felt very professional and I actually ended up not getting that nervous. It felt very in control and very collaborative.
ETHEART: What's your take on Jason's relationship with Leigh? Was either of them a victim?
LAMBERT: It's an interesting relationship. I definitely think it was a platonic relationship. I think there were mutual feelings there, but I don't even know if it was so much love as it was these two people who are definitely from different worlds but have the same feeling of no direction. Both of them have sort of come to this place where they don't know what's next for them, even if they have an idea, and they both have their own objectives. Jason's trying to leave town, and leave his home behind and start over, and the whole movie is following how Leigh pretty much does the same thing by leaving New York and going back home. So you do see a similarity in this sense that they don't fit in where they're from and they're not necessarily sure what to do about it, where to go, or how to handle it. So I think it's just these two people connecting over the fact that they're lost and that they can sort of be lost together. You know, at times it almost feels motherly. Leigh almost gives out a maternal vibe towards Jason. There's a lot of conversations where she's almost giving him advice. So there's a really interesting quality to the relationship where I feel like it's not just one thing. I think they're just filling whatever voids they have—they're filling them for each other. So it was a really odd relationship, but it's along those lines. It's something that can't be exactly defined.
ETHEART: So there's no blame to be placed, no antagonist?
LAMBERT: I would say the biggest antagonist is that sense of not knowing what's next. It's just this invisible, ominous thing that hangs over Leigh the whole movie. Besides that though, obviously Mel [Mamie Gummer]'s husband John [Joshua Harto] is the only adult in the movie who acts like an adult, and it's funny because he often comes off as the bad guy in a lot of scenes, but then when you stop and really think about what they're saying compared to what he's saying, he's actually the most rational. He's really the only one okay with growing up, and he wants to have a life for himself and have a family, whereas it seems like all the other adults that this movie focuses on don't seem ready to be adults just yet. They're all putting it off, mentally. That's an interesting contrast.
ETHEART: Do you remember what convinced you that you wanted to act?
LAMBERT: Yeah. I did theater for fun, and I didn't really think it was anything serious. I met a lot of kids through it and it was pretty social for me. I actually watched Lord of the Rings right when it came out, so maybe 2001 or 2002 or whenever that was. But I watched those movies and I ended up loving them so much that I found every behind-the-scenes feature and every sort of "making-of" clip they had. I learned a lot about how movies were made, and how you go to location, and there's a crew, and it takes months to film, and all these steps that are involved that I just didn't realize as a kid. That was like an awakening for me. [laughs] I instantly wanted to do it.
ETHEART: Have you ever been to Vermont yourself? Jason is pretty obsessed with it.
LAMBERT: [laughs] Vermont, no. I have unfortunately not been to Vermont personally. But I hear it's very nice.
ETHEART: The Internet says you've lived in England, Taiwan, Texas, and Georgia, though.
LAMBERT: My family actually moved a lot growing up. I really only lived in one place every five or six years, and then we'd move again. That was just for my dad's work. His job would ask him to commute for months on end from another state or even another country, or the other option was for us all to move with him so that he didn't have to commute all the time. Actually when I got into acting, all the traveling involved was sort of a breeze because I had been traveling all my life anyway, so it was a comforting thing to be traveling again.
ETHEART: Have you picked up any other languages abroad?
LAMBERT: No, I'm ashamed to say it. I'm not even bilingual. I know Spanish pretty well. I'm half-Puerto Rican—my mom is from Puerto Rico—so I have a lot of family there and my mom's first language is Spanish. But growing up in the States, and with my dad being from the States, I'm kind of just like this white kid. [laughs]
ETHEART: So no Spanish-language roles anytime soon.
LAMBERT: No, you know, unless I brush up on it. That would be interesting. [laughs] Maybe I'll just start studying now.
THE LIFEGUARD OPENS THIS FRIDAY, AUGUST 30.