The latest thriller to join the ranks of 1987's "Fatal Attraction" and 1993's "The Crush" in the "One-Night-Stand-from-Hell" genre, "Swimfan" offers a classy visual sheen and some stronger-than-usual performances from a young cast to hide the fact that it is utterly derivative and clumsily predictable. Surprisingly, the film works for the majority of its first hour before a third act that suddenly derails into run-of-the-mill confrontations and PG-13-level violence.
After a past that involved drug abuse and stealing, high school senior Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) has finally gotten his life back into order. He is the most promising member of his school's swim team, is doing well in school, and has a devoted girlfriend in Amy Miller (Shiri Appleby). His life is once again put into a tailspin after a one-time fling with new-girl-in-town Madison Bell (Erika Christensen). Although Ben warns her from the start that it was a mistake and their relationship will go no further, Madison won't take "no" for an answer. In true movie psycho style, she sets out to deviously destroy his life in an attempt to make him realize he loves her the way she loves him.
The premise "Swimfan" is dealt with has been done to death on film and, to be sure, there is a certain trashy fun to be had with a movie that wants nothing more than to be a teen version of "Fatal Attraction." As directed by John Polson and written by Charles Bohl and Phillip Schneider, originality was clearly not on their short list of goals when they tackled this project. Along with director of photography Giles Nuttgens (2001's "The Deep End"), they have instead decided to compensate a lack of story inventiveness with style. The occasional use of jump and flash cuts do not distract as they sometimes do, but aid in portraying the disturbed, off-kilter mind of Madison. The cinematography is also beautiful, with a rich use of color and atmospheric lighting not often seen in the teen marketplace.
For a while, director Polson actually fools the viewer into believing that there will be more coming up than at first meets the eye. He spends a satisfying amount of time at the onset in developing the movie's three central characters beyond cookie-cutter status. Had this continued in Polson's trajectory, he might have succeeded in rising above the tried-and-true formula. Regretfully, the more destructive Madison grows, the more the film abandons its characters' realism in favor of cheap shock moments and stalking sequences.
In the middle of all this is Madison herself, who loses more and more credibility every time the screenplay demands that she go over the deep end. Erika Christensen (2000's "Traffic
") is superb in the role, palpably threatening when need be, but also somewhat sympathetic in the first half when she is scorned by Ben. The vulnerability Christensen so smartly brings to the part is nowhere to be seen on the written page, as she is asked to do nothing but be the one-dimensional villainess.
As Ben, Jesse Bradford (2002's "Clockstoppers
") is solid in the lead role, but he is upstaged not only by Christensen, but also by Shiri Appleby (TV's "Roswell"), who rises far and beyond her call of duty. Appleby brings a warmth and innocence to Amy that allows you to understand just how big a mistake Ben actually makes when he wrongfully cheats on her. Amy is also not just the token girlfriend, but a smart young woman who, even after she discovers Ben's secret, cares enough about him to let him confide in her.
That the setup for "Swimfan" is so surprisingly effective only makes the climax all the more disappointing. Following an attempted murder and a deadly run-in with the police, the picture culminates, just as "Fatal Attraction" did, in water. And, also just as "Fatal Attraction" did, it sacrifices smart plotting and plausibility for a sequence that might have been right at home in a "Friday the 13th" movie, but only comes off as lame here. "Swimfan" is a technically well-made suspenser, and even features cursory entertainment value, but its abrupt drop in IQ points as it races to the finish line proves simply too discouraging to let slide.
©2002 by Dustin Putman