At first blush, Derick Martini’s autobiographical debut “Lymelife” (co-scripted with his brother Steven, who also provided the original score), the opening-night film of the 2009 Gen Art Film Festival, would seem to be an unpromising rehash of warmed-over indie-film tropes. Quirky coming-of-age story? Suburban family dysfunction? A sea of recognizable faces from film and television? Check, check, and check.
But “Lymelife,” which first premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, has much more on its mind than its scenario would suggest. Set in suburban Long Island in the late 1970s, the film concerns itself largely with the travails of 15-year-old Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin). Scott is struggling to grow up around the motley crew he has been saddled with, including his father Mickey (Alec Baldwin), who is wrapped up in building his dream house next door, to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Brenda (Jill Hennessy), who pines for her old neighborhood in Queens. Scott’s older brother Jimmy (Kieran Culkin) is home on leave from the army; his admiring younger brother imagines Jimmy valiantly battling foes on the battlefield. However, the truth of Jimmy’s job turns out to be something very different, which is the case for other characters in the film, most of whose secrets are uncovered in due course.
The film’s title refers to the Lyme disease scare that gripped suburban Long Islanders at the time; Brenda has taken to wrapping Scott with duct tape to prevent him from catching it. It may, however, be too late for the Bartletts’ next door neighbors Charlie and Melissa Bragg (Timothy Hutton and Cynthia Nixon), whose marriage is strained by Melissa’s dissatisfaction with her unemployed, emotionally withdrawn husband who constantly pops pills to control the aftereffects of Lyme disease (which in his case may or may not be imaginary), whiles away the hours surreptitiously smoking pot in the basement, and hunts down the deer roaming his lawn. Meanwhile, Scott is infatuated with the Braggs’ daughter Adrianna (Emma Roberts), but is intimidated by her reputation as the school sexpot, as she is often seen in the company of older boys at school.
Aided by the subtle use of period details, which are not unduly called attention to, but allowed to permeate the film – giving it an admirably lived-in feel, Martini maps out the network of relationships in the film in a very engaging way, allowing these details to resonate deeply. He makes nice use of his widescreen frame to convey Charlie’s claustrophobic, solitary existence, as well as the bland banality of Mickey’s grand dream home.
Martini also deftly avoids the minefields of clichés which often accompany the narrative materials he uses. One example is the scene in which Scott and Adrianna finally consummate their burgeoning relationship, which beautifully and hilariously captures the awkwardness of a first time sexual encounter. The film is peppered with these well-written gems, including Brenda’s confession of how repulsed she is by her husband, a mini-monologue which captures the release of her characters’ bottled-up rage. Martini tempers his almost-happy ending with an ominously ambiguous conclusion, more proof of his confident grasp of the world he has created.
“Lymelife” opens in theaters on April 8.