Tuesday, 24 August 2010

[377] Lymelife (2008) Review




We've all been there; courting a potential lover, only for the veneer of cool to be disrupted by a dreaded outside influence. Feel for 15-year old Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin), therefore, as he finds himself in his bedroom with coquettish neighbour Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts), sitting on his bed, only for the mood to be broken by a stray toy - a Millenium Falcon from Star Wars - to be lying in between the pseudo-lovers: a Maginot Line between childlike innocence and inevitable adulthood.

Lymelife, like plenty of similarly themed American 'indie' comedy-dramas, capitalises on a shared sense of nostalgia, either through evoking the pop culture of specific time period (here a very anachronistic early 1980s, where the Falklands War coincides with the Tehran hostage crisis), or through establishing supposedly universal concepts, such as coming of age or family tension.

The action primarily focuses on Scott, the awkward teen who must overcome personal inadequacy in the face of dissolving parental relationships, schoolyard bullies and a whole host of experiences - from smoking weed, to casting off his virginity. Culkin is a pleasant presence on screen, but the necessary weakness of the character makes him unassuming, except for precious few scenes of youthful embarrassment (at one point, he is offered select cuts of deer meat by Adrianna's father: "You turnin' down a piece of ass? That's the best part!").

To combat this, director Derick Martini (with co-writer, producer and brother Steven) paints the supporting roles with broader strokes. However, unlike other films containing slightly boring young male protagonists - The Virgin Suicides, Almost Famous, or even A Serious Man - Lymelife's ensemble approach feels both claustrophobic and scattershot, only concerning itself with two families, both nearing collapse. The Bartletts are rich and unhappy, with ambitious father Mickey's (Alec Baldwin) determination to turn Long Island into a trendy suburban outpost seeming completely at odds with the wants of his wife, Brenda (Jill Hennessy). Her ambitions are unclear, but they certainly do not involve Mickey having an affair with colleague and neighbour Melissa Bragg (Cynthia Nixon), whose burdonsome husband Charlie is suffering from Lyme disease, which he likens to a perpetual acid trip.

The film gathers some momentum once Scott's older brother Jim (Kieran Culkin) comes home from the military. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Martinis' work shines best in sequences of brotherly interaction, as the elder is idolised by the younger, but the wise move of casting real life siblings provides an easy, believeable chemistry. Jim's presence also brings a bit of blood to the film, not to mention Oedipal resonance, as a drunken Mickey lashes out at his firstborn.

However, the Martinis let this conflict hang loose, like other narrative threads across the film, such as a strong under-current of Catholic symbolism (Mickey is shown bearing a 'for sale' sign like a cross, and Scott becomes a man sexually only after his Confirmation). Likewise, the disease that gives the film its title is an empty reference, used to define one character's quirky behaviour as opposed to adding resonance. The creative duo seem content with squeezing irony out of Jim's early quip "welcome to our wonderful little family and our perfect surburban life". This reaches a particularly ridiculous point in a scene that evokes an upstairs-downstairs farce, where the kids get high on the porch while the adulterous adults get fresh in the basement - and the cuckolded husband looks on. It is this reluctance that leaves Lymelife without the edges of an American Beauty, or a Squid and the Whale, despite the Martinis' assertion that the film is based on their own experience. Perhaps you just had to be there.


Lymelife enjoys staring at its own cultural navel, yet there's little to take from this nostalgic therapy session.


Lymelife is out on DVD now.

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