There is a line halfway through the new teen thriller “Swimfan” that calls into question every conclusion one has naturally come to after 45 minutes of eye-roll inducing dialogue straight out of the annals of cliche hell. Futilely battling to separate himself from his increasingly disturbed lover, Madison Bell (Erika Christensen), protagonist Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) sternly insists: “Madison, I think you’re misunderstanding our relationship in a fundamental way.” Ben’s subtle words of rejection got me thinking: Is this youthful “Fatal Attraction” a genuine thriller gone horribly awry? Or is it just fundamentally misunderstood, a campy corn dog aspiring to little more than innocent B-movie bliss?
No matter which interpretation one chooses to support, most comparisons to the aforementioned one-night stand from hell shocker are woefully misguided. All the two movies really share is the plot progression of lonely woman/girl’s dangerous and increasingly homicidal obsession with a charming, attractive businessman/swim jock. Any further links will inevitably lead to doomed anticipation, since anyone would be foolish to expect a mangy mutt to behave like a pedigree poodle.
Yet even the lowest of expectations cannot forgive certain glaring cinematic errors. In one scene, Ben furiously admonishes Madison for her abnormally high sex drive and demands that she keep her distance. Instead of relying on Christensen’s hilariously creepy look of menacing desperation, the director chooses to chop the moment into tiny fragments, creating awkward lapses in time. This temporal layering might have worked as the ultimate in faux-filmmaker cheesiness if it weren’t so damn distracting. Even worse, he scores these subtle moments of artistic brilliance with nails-on-a-chalkboard screeches, as if he honestly thinks we’re not cringing already.
While the misguided director apparently believes he is making a real film, Bradford and Christensen have a better sense of their context. Bradford is a magnificently dull actor, but he does lend the film some of its finest unintentional hilarity. As his character’s fear and agitation mount, he plays every emotion with a conviction that seems silly next to the increasingly preposterous story and character revelations.
Yet it’s really Christensen who gives the film its juice. She proved her acting chops in “Traffic,” skillfully dashing between daring teen and vulnerable drug addict. Although “Swimfan” is clearly not a showcase for craft, she nevertheless manages to sizzle through this plodding film. She utilizes her striking cherubic face, her sexy, swiveling hips, and her fiercely menacing eyes to lure us into her distorted psyche, even as clunking dialogue impedes her effectiveness. By the film’s conclusion, Christensen’s performance has reached a fever pitch of divinely awful histrionics. She is so intensely over the top, it can only be the sign of a true talent doing her best to pump vitality into the anemic material at hand.
While “Swimfan” falters through the eyes of the serious thrill-seeker, it successfully whets the appetite of the moviegoer hankering for a slice of cinematic ham. To elicit any pleasure from the experience, follow Christensen’s lead: Have fun with the mess. Wait until it comes out on video, get ridiculously drunk watching it with your friends, and laugh until your sides hurt.