Back to the beach
North Avenue Beach makes its big-screen debut
05/20/2009 10:00 PM
Memorial Day weekend is a page-turner for Chicago. The city begins to come alive as cold, dark grays shift to warm, bright blues and folks shake off the hibernation funk for fair-weather fun. The city eggs this process along, bidding winter adieu and summer welcome with a variety of events, including opening the lakefront beaches to sun-seekers and the water-bound. It’s apropos then that the Gene Siskel Film Center would kick off its summer season with the premiere of a locally produced independent feature shot on location at Chicago’s North Avenue Beach.
Riffraff follows a group of lifeguards over the course of a season, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. In between beach patrols and training exercises, the crew fills the summer with raucous booze-outs, sexcapades and raunchy wordplay. A “boy-likes-girl-likes-boy-likes girl” romantic melodrama between two couples whose relationships become entangled to shattering degrees plays out amidst this action.
Robert Belushi (son of actor Jim Belushi) and Ben Wells are surprisingly impressive as college buddies who head to Chicago’s lakefront for their summer employ only to have their friendship tested when each falls for a woman from the other’s past. Broadway vet Chryssie Whitehead and newcomer Katie O’Hagan standout in these roles as well. Unfortunately, their performances are overshadowed by multiple shortcomings.
Caricatured ancillary characters, unfunny “comic relief” and juvenile, gratuitous profanities abound. Amateur vulgarity takes focus over substance far too often, distracting from a potentially effective coming-of-age tale.
Riffraff makes up for these misses with necessary authenticity, however. First-time director Justen Naughton spent summers during college working as a North Avenue Beach lifeguard. His first-hand knowledge of the job’s ins-and-outs translates to the screen, elevating the film above “Baywatch” stereotypes. Learning the details of Chicago’s beaches and how they’re guarded provides some of the film’s most interesting moments.
Most importantly, Naughton captures lifeguarding’s urgency. Underneath the drunken tomfoolery, sex jokes and random hook-ups are the ever-present realities of work on the frontlines of life and death. The proximity is sobering and ultimately explains Riffraff’s riffraff as a pressure valve needed to prevent psychological explosion. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die, indeed.
The Siskel Center’s Friday, May 29 screening of Riffraff marks the film’s Chicago premiere. Stars Belushi, Wells, Whitehead and O’Hagan are scheduled to be in attendance.