It doesn't matter how common divorce has become, it's still incredibly painful for all involved. This is all too evident in the new pseudo-memoir by writer/director Derick Martini, Lymelife. This autobiographical picture is at its most potent when it trains its eye on the failing marriage of the upwardly mobile suburbanites that produced its main character. Though essentially a coming-of-age drama, it's the rawness of the conflict between Alec Baldwin and Jill Hennessy that had me squirming in my seat, remembering the parental fights in my own childhood, and that stuck with me long after.
The story of Lymelife is set on Long Island in the early 1980s. The focal character is Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin), a quiet, awkward teen who poses in the mirror and practices asking out his neighbor, Adrianna (Emma Roberts). He has known her since they were in elementary school, and trust me, the teen years have been kind to her. Being with her is about the only thing Scott seems to think about with any lasting seriousness.
His mother, on the other hand, is a New York mom full of neuroses and nagging concerns. Brenda (Hennessy) is afraid that her son will get bitten by a tic and contract lyme disease, which at the time had no treatment and was on the rise in their area. Adrianna's dad, Charlie (Timothy Hutton), has had it for a while now, and he's not been the same. So, Brenda bundles up Scott as best she can, taping the cuffs of his shirt and pants shut with duct tape. To her son and her husband, Mickey (Baldwin), she is an impractical housewife, fretting over nothing. Mickey is more concerned with the plots of land he is developing and the new house he's going to build for his family. He's also got his hands full with an extramarital affair with Adrianna's mom (Cynthia Nixon).
Naturally, in this kind of family story, lyme disease is not the real fear, but a metaphor for what is going on emotionally. As we know from other stories of this type, the more placid the neighborhood, the more unsettled it is. In this case, it could have been a rather heavy-handed symbol--bloodsuckers lurk where you cannot see them, implanting their disease in your body before you even know they are there--but Martini is smart and doesn't make any direct comparisons to the insidiousness of these tiny killers and the ennui of planned communities. In fact, Derick, who co-wrote Lymelife with his brother Steve Martini, plays most of the film smart. The fact that the picture got a little away from his onscreen avatar is not entirely his fault, it's tough to keep actors like Alec Baldwin and Jill Hennessy from stealing any movie. Baldwin is feral and broken, likely channeling some of his real-life travails into the performance, whereas Hennessy is brittle while also a touch self-serving in her possession of her own tragedy. The ways they avoid each other and the issues are just as brutal as when they go head to head.
Timothy Hutton also takes regular command of the movie, playing the surrogate father/big brother to Scott. Rory Culkin's actual older brother Kieran plays Scott's actual older brother in the movie, but his guidance is more predictable of the genre. Hutton's character is more memorable, representing the outcome of the suburban disease as well as being the sage who is outside of the situation enough to assess just how damaged it is. Charlie is more capable of steering the young boy because unlike the rest of the adults, he is not too busy trying to fix himself. He's accepted his fate. As an actor, Hutton brings an off-kilter edginess to the part. The marijuana he's been smoking may blunt the pain, but it doesn't erase it, and Hutton makes sure we can always see its effects.
In thinking about it, Scott's taking a back seat in his own film may not be in error, but a product of design. It's the nature of this kind of material that the central character be more of an observer than a participant. In this, Rory Culkin's distant stare ends up being a fantastic tool for he and his director to show how disaffected the teenager is. He's bundled himself up in his personal affairs just as his mom wants to do in the rest of his life. If he'd stop looking and do something, he might win the affection of Adrianna. Then again, he's looking, but he doesn't see. The girl of his dreams is the most together character in the picture, and she gives Scott enough signals that were she an air traffic controller, she could run an entire airport all on her own. Emma Roberts is very good as Adrianna, fitting into the ensemble well. She understands the balance required, that Adrianna has accepted a certain level of maturity while still trying not to relinquish her innocence completely. For a "high school sweetheart" role, Adrianna is written with much more care than is usually taken with such a part. She's not just a type, not merely perfect and unattainable, but instead a regular girl with her own set of problems. (With this and the Kristen Stewart part in Adventureland, it's a good time to be the female love interest in 1980s growing-up movies.)
Lymelife is inevitably going to be compared to Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, a film it shares more than a few things in common with; it's unfortunate, not just because The Ice Storm is far and away the better movie, but also because this movie deserves to stand on its own. It doesn't push the past as a kind of alien terrain, getting caught up in an artificial style like other period films (though, to be fair, Ang Lee uses that artificiality as part of his subtext). As a first time director, Derick Martini has a solid grasp on what he's doing and is wise enough not to insist that we notice him, content instead to hang back and let his material do the work. He's generous to his actors, giving them a good space in which to work, and also handy with an appropriate music cue to give them an emotional boost (a trick he may have picked up from Martin Scorsese, who executive produced Lymelife). In fact, the one time that Martini pushes for a more up-front style is the only time Lymelife nearly collapses. The last couple of minutes contain a summary montage that moves from character to character so we can get one last look, and it not only goes on too long, but it forces an overly dramatic final shot that fails to leave the viewer with anything but further questions. Though beautifully staged, Lymelife did not need ambiguity introduced into the narrative in the last ten seconds.
Still, while they may leave you wondering what the hell just happened, those last shots are not enough to undo all the good Martini had done up until then. Lymelife is an assured debut with real emotion and an excellent cast. Given the onslaught of inhuman drama that is about to be dropped on us (the summer movie season begins!), thank goodness Lymelife will be waiting there for when you need a time-out to feel human again.