Three popular clichés come together in the indie comedy-drama Lymelife (2008): coming of age, suburban ennui, and 1970s nostalgia. Co-written with his brother Steven, this directorial debut from Derick Martini about two intertwined nuclear families coming apart is set on Long Island over Thanksgiving week, 1979.
The principal protagonist is 15-year-old Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin). Through by-the-numbers plot development, over the course of the week Scott covers all the coming-of-age clichés: overcoming a school bully, boozing and smoking dope, losing his virginity, and finally seeing his parents and their friends for the flawed human beings they really are.
The object of Scott's emerging lust is his classmate Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts), who already exhibits a maturity far beyond Scott's. His mother, Brenda (Jill Hennessy), is an alcoholic, manic-depressive homemaker, nursing a long simmering grudge against her philandering husband. Scott's father, Mickey (Alec Baldwin), a successful real-estate developer, is darkly motivated by an Irish-Catholic, working-class-Queens background to measure his self worth by how much money he earns and how many women he beds. Rounding out the Bartlett clan is Scott's older brother Jimmy (played by Rory Culkin's brother Kieran), a soldier home on leave from the Army who fears becoming the man his father is.
Adrianna's mom, Melissa (Cynthia Nixon), works for Mickey, and is also having an affair with him. While Adrianna's dad, Charlie (Timothy Hutton), is unemployed and suffering from some malady which may be Lyme disease, a bacterial infection spread by deer ticks which had no effective treatment in 1979. Charlie pretends to be going into the City every day looking for a job, but in fact he simply wanders with a rifle around the woods behind the house or hides away in the basement, all the while suffering from severe flu-like symptoms and crippling depression.
Lyme disease is the MacGuffin in Lymelife: Charlie Bragg suffers from it, and Brenda Bartlett fears her son getting it so much that she literally duct tapes his clothing to his body to protect him from it. Alas, it probably comes as no surprise that in Lymelife Lyme disease is simply a blindingly obvious metaphor for the ennui and disaffection of middle-class suburban families falling apart. Charlie's symptoms are the physical manifestation of the woes of all the adult lives around him, an outcome that Brenda desperately wants to save her son from.
In addition to the worn clichés, the script suffers from several anachronisms, the most troubling of which concerns a subplot about Jimmy's Army unit being mobilized for possible action in the Falkland Islands. The Falklands War didn't occur until more than two years after the other events occurring in this film. Nobody in 1979 thought the diplomatic conflict between Great Britain and Argentina for control of some isolated islands of sheep herders would lead to actual war, and even if they had nobody would ever have thought the United States might get directly involved. So why is this subplot here at all? Initially, I thought it was to insinuate that Jimmy was lying about being in the Army and to suggest that his parents were too clueless to see through his simple deception, but this theory was dispelled when Jimmy admits to Scott some less glamorous truths about his military service. So what then? Was it just a glaring error? I still don't know.
What mostly saves Lymelife from its weak script is inspired casting and strong performances. Casting real-life brothers Rory and Kieran Calkin in the roles of Scott and Jimmy was brilliant, adding a layer of believability that the script desperately needed. Both perform their parts well enough, as does Emma Roberts, and even Cynthia Nixon, more or less succeeds in the role of the one-note shrew, though far less successfully than Annette Bening in a nearly identical role in American Beauty. However, it's the remainder of the ensemble cast that really shine: Alec Baldwin appears to be channeling personal trauma in his pitch perfect performance as a philander; Jill Hennessy breaths extraordinary depth into the thinly-drawn brittle hausfrau written for her, and Timothy Hutton is utterly convincing in his role as the afflicted sufferer, stealing every scene even when he has no lines.
Unfortunately, only a single-layered, unfinalized screening copy was provided to DVD Talk for this review. Although anamorphic, the review disc suffers from numerous digital compression errors that are unlikely to appear on the final product, and it has no extras. I have no clue why a DVD distribution studio would bother to send a review disc like this to a DVD review site but they still often do. As is, I'm in no position to rate the release in terms of A/V quality or extras.
If the studio ever does send a final product for review I'll update this section accordingly.
Lymelife, the directorial debut from Derick Martini, is a clichéd coming-of-age story set in dysfunctional suburbia, circa 1979. Co-written by Derick and his brother Steven, the film recycles tropes done better elsewhere, most especially in Ang Lee's unrivaled The Ice Storm (1997). To the extent that the film rises above its hackneyed script it does so thanks to the superb acting of its ensemble cast.
Though not a film that anybody will need to see more than once, it's probably worth renting for viewers that enjoy nostalgic comedy-dramas of this kind.