Aug 21, 2002 at 12:00 am

Coming-of-age films have a sub-genre that could be called “The Summer that Changed My Life.” It’s a body of films more vast than you might think, washing over narrow boundaries of period and place, and encompassing pictures as diverse as Swedish director Ingmar Berman’s tragic Summer with Monika (1953), the teen sex comedy American Pie (1999), with French director Eric Rohmer’s intellectual Pauline at the Beach (1983) and the good ol’ American melodrama of Summer of ’42 (1971) somewhere in the middle.

Swimming is a bit different. This simple yet subtle drama avoids tear-jerking while taking its time making its emotional way between the commonplace perils of its heroine, Frankie (Lauren Ambrose of HBO’s “Six Feet Under”), and the fine shades of often-amusing irony that saturate her environment.

Frankie, when we first meet her, seems to be bobbing through a life a little more than ordinary. Orphaned in Arizona, she’s ended up the co-owner of a diner and bar in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with her older brother, Neil (Josh Pais). She treads water through a daily routine of work at the diner, dinner with Neil’s family and an aimless search for evening entertainment with Nicola (Jennifer Dundas), her neurotically spunky girlfriend since grade school.

When model-pretty Josee (American Pie 2 alumna Joelle Carter) shows up on the arm of a ridiculously vain and stupid lifeguard aptly named Brad (James Villemaire), she does what femme fatales do: she stirs up trouble. She raises the dormant love sap in Frankie, filling her puppy-dog eyes with a melting mixture of awe and adoration. And she inspires a jealousy bordering on the psycho in Nicola.

But when Heath (Jamie Harrold) rolls into town behind the wheel of his home, a beat-up Chevy van that contains his dogs and tie-dye T-shirt business, Frankie begins to feel out the boundaries of her relationships, sexuality and identity.

I don’t have enough words to describe Ambrose’s tour-de-force performance. It’s a wonder, modulating emotional tints and shades, and playing out with an almost uncanny truth.

Swimming may not dive deeply, but it does come up with some fine treasures.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].