Reaching the age of 30 is an important marker for many people. It's an age at which you should be close to having your life in the place you want it to be. Your career and relationships are supposed to be settled, and your confidence and sense of self-worth should be at their highest. If that's not the case, then something must be wrong, right? Maybe not. It may be more common than you think to feel out of place, even as your 20s draw to a close. Over the past decade, films and television shows have increasingly dealt with the struggles that come with getting older but having no clue what you really want out of life. (The trend may have begun with shows like Sex and the City and movies like Lost in Translation.) This thematic trend represents growing awareness of an issue that, until recently, wasn’t well depicted. The result is an awareness that the problem exists, and also that it's not something to be overly concerned about.
The Lifeguard, the debut feature-length film by director Liz W. Garcia, is the latest coming-of-age film to focus on not being where you thought you'd be at a particular moment in your life. It tells the story of a young woman named Leigh, played by Kristen Bell, who is an anxiety inducing few months away from turning 30. Leigh is not entirely happy with her life as a reporter for the Associated Press in New York City, as she's stressed by the constant demands of her career, and the relationship she has with her boss is beginning to falter. In a spirit of reevaluation, she returns to the suburbs, taking an old high school job to pay her way while she’s there.
We’ve seen this type of film a lot over the past few years, most recently in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, a bubbly black-and-white film starring Greta Gerwig as a 27-year-old dance instructor who's lost her mooring. Frances is sent into a introspective spiral after her roommate decides to move in with her long-term boyfriend. Because Frances' life revolved around her roommate, she suddenly finds herself stuck facing the issues of adulthood on her own. Television shows like Girls and New Girl have also emphasized the struggles of twentysomethings who are rapidly approaching their 30s, with their focus on relationships, commitment, career instability, and low self-esteem.
Leigh is confronted with exactly those issues in The Lifeguard. Her fling with a young high school student, delinquent behavior, and volatile relationship with her own mother comprise her quarter-life crisis. There's a great scene in which Leigh talks about an article she wrote for the Associated Press concerning a tiger that was held in a cramped apartment, saying, "Someone took this amazing thing that should have been running free and kept it prisoner and it died. And it wasn't even full-grown." You get the sense that she is talking about herself — although who, exactly, the captor is in her case is left unclear.
These types of films can demystify the experience of feeling out of place, and not knowing exactly what you want to do, or where you want to go. After all, we all worry about the same things: moving forward, finding our tune, and following our aspirations. The Lifeguard, and the growing body of movies and TV shows to which it belongs, may help us feel a little less alone in dealing with these issues. We have many opportunities to watch a myriad of characters head down self-destructive paths, or redeem themselves in their process of self-discovery, and all can help us make sense of our own struggles. We can take Leigh, and her summer lifeguarding job, as just another case in point that maybe turning 30 isn't such a big deal, after all.