Erika Christensen gives herself over to the role of a high school femme fatale in Swimfan the way that a born sex bomb wouldn’t. She’s a thoughtful, alluring actress playing a sex bomb, and that makes her far more erotic — and fascinating — to watch than the latest teen babe du jour. As Madison Bell, a new student from somewhere down South who fixates on the hottest jock in class, the earnest swim champ Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford), Christensen looks more voluptuous than she did in ”Traffic,” and the fleshiness only heightens her appeal. Her face, framed by Pre-Raphaelite curls, is circular and creamy soft, with an upper lip as curvy as a longbow and eyes that are like the two biggest marbles you’ve ever seen. Those bewitching orbs have a way of holding on to an adoring look of love a beat or two longer than they should, and that gives her the quality of a slightly possessed baby doll. If countless young actresses have evoked Marilyn Monroe, Christensen, in ”Swimfan,” recalls something far more eerie and ambiguously enticing: She’s like the living embodiment of an Andy Warhol Marilyn portrait.
Madison, who plays the cello, is immensely sensitive and intelligent, far too forceful a personality to ever speak in icky catchphrases like ”You are soooo busted!” She’s a bad girl disguised as a good girl, and she knows just how to nab a star athlete?by turning seduction into a contest. It’s not hard to see why Ben, despite the fact that he has a cute and worshipful girlfriend (who does say things like ”You are soooo busted!”), couldn’t resist the charms of this smolderingly self-aware teen angel. When Madison gets Ben alone at night in the school swimming pool, she forces him to say ”I love you!” right in the middle of sex, which is a hell of a mind game. At that moment, it’s not at all clear to him that he doesn’t mean it.
”Swimfan,” a junior-varsity ”Fatal Attraction,” starts out well, with Jesse Bradford, from ”Bring It On,” gawking just avidly enough to suggest Carson Daly with a brain transplant; it’s easy to get on his sap-hero wavelength. But the script, having presented Ben as a diligent overachiever, attempts to give him a secret dark side by establishing that he went through a battle with drugs, and Bradford, unlike Michael Douglas, shows no inner sleaze. Ben backs out of the affair virtually the moment he dips into it, and so, unfortunately, does the movie. Thrown into a rage, the jilted Madison employs a few innovative harassment gambits, like sending her nude photograph to Ben on a school computer. But she quickly turns into a homicidal superbitch who eliminates her foes leaving fewer traces than a Mob hitman. The sexy cleverness of Christensen’s performance, too, seems to disappear in a trace.
”Swimfan” is proof that a thriller can be sleekly shot, expertly cast, paced with crisp professionalism…and still be a letdown if its twists and turns hold no more surprise than yesterday’s weather report.