The Lifeguard is a great film to study for how to build a story around a theme.
Here’s the logline for the movie from IMDB: “A former valedictorian quits her reporter job in New York and returns to the place she last felt happy: her childhood home in Connecticut. She gets work as a lifeguard and starts a dangerous relationship with a troubled teenager.”
What the logline doesn’t say is that former valedictorian is frustrated with the way her job and life are going. In fact, the character literally says the following: “My life hasn’t turned out like I pictured.”
So, she goes back to that time when everything was possible, when she was a teenage lifeguard.
That is, each of the major characters in the movie is dealing with the same issue as Kristen Bell’s character, Leigh: a life that is not quite what they expected and the feeling of being lost.
— For example, Leigh’s mother is lost because her daughter is grown up and no longer needs her (or at least until recently).
— Leigh’s friend Todd is still living in town with a pointless job, even though he’s capable of much more.
— Leigh’s friend Mel wants to start a family but also wants a little of what Leigh is after: some carefree fun like she used to have when she was younger.
— And then there are Leigh’s teenage friends that she meets when lifeguarding, both of whom want to escape the town and live better lives in Vermont.
Each of these characters is a way of exploring the central dramatic question of the movie: What do you do when your life is not going the way you want?
And each character provides an answer in the form of the choice they make. In particular, all of the characters, except one, moves on.
— Leigh quits her lifeguard job and moves back to the city with the intention of getting a better reporting job.
— Leigh helps her mother set up things for her business so her mother can launch a new phase of her life.
— Todd moves to the city, ready to finally live a bigger life.
— Mel continues pursuing motherhood, having more fully accepted adult responsibility.
And tragically, one of the teenage characters commits suicide. He represents the dark path Leigh, or any of the other characters, could have gone down if they didn’t choose to move on.
All of this adds up to the central dramatic argument of the film, expressed by one of the secondary characters: “Things happen. Keep moving or die.”