Lymelife (2008)

Lymelife first published by Sight & Sound, July 2010

Review: “This feels like a perpetual acid trip.”

It is the late 1970s, and dazed, hopeless Charlie Bragg (Timothy Hutton) is trying to describe the bewildering effects of Lyme disease to his 15-year-old neighbour Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin). Scott has never ingested LSD (although he will soon have his first puff of pot) and, though just bitten by a tick, he has been fortunate enough not to contract the chronic illness in which the less lucky Charlie is slowly losing himself. For Scott, however, the changes that come with adolescence are no less disorienting. Even as he experiments awkwardly with alcohol, drugs and sex, and learns just as awkwardly to stand up for himself, he finds his every assumption about the happiness and stability of his suburban nuclear family being shot down. “I feel”, Scott will later remark, “like I’m in the Twilight Zone here,echoing Charlie’s analogical formulation. Yet if Charlie and Scott are linked by their shared sense of confused alienation, then parental adultery, not to mention Scott’s clumsy infatuation with Charlie’s slightly older and more confident daughter Adrianna (Emma Roberts), will bring together (and tear apart) the Bartletts and the Braggs in other ways.

“More than semi-autobiographical” is how director Derick Martini has described Lymelife, which he co-write with his brother Steven (they also wrote and starred together in 1999’s award-winning Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish). The Martinis themselves came of age in the early Nineties, but we infer that the events of their film, spanning roughly a year in Scott’s life, begin in 1979 (hence the TV news about American hostages seized in Iran) and end in 1980 (hence Scott’s later references to Lando Calrissian, who first appeared in that year’s The Empire Strikes Back). This makes for some pleasing, mostly well-handled period detail, but there is also the occasional jarring and entirely avoidable error, like the insistence of Scott’s older brother Jimmy (played by Rory’s older brother Kieran Culkin) that his military unit is about to be activated for combat in the Falklands – despite the fact that the war there took place two whole years later, and never actually involved any intervention by the US armed forces. Perhaps the Martinis should have stuck more closely to what they know.  

None of this detracts, though, from the sharpness of the brothers’ writing, the unflinching commitment of their ensemble cast, or the subtle way in which the mise-en-scène captures both the languid passage of time and the emptiness of suburban life. With its middle-class setting, its coming-of-age themes, its domestic drama, its father-son conflict, even its period nostalgia and foundation in autobiography, Lymelife may be setting up home in a plot familiar from indies like The Ice Storm (1997), Imaginary Heroes (2004), The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Adventureland (2009), but it also matches all these for quality. True, some of its scenes seem contrived and over-schematic, as when Scott’s father (Alec Baldwin) and Adrianna’s mother (Cynthia Nixon) have illicit sex downstairs while their respective children have an equally illicit toke upstairs and the cuckolded Charlie observes from his hiding place in the room next door, or when Scott is initiated into manhood by both having his Confirmation and losing his virginity in the space of a single day – but these near-farcical sequences are offset by some welcome breaches of cliché. Scott’s final confrontation with a bully is too pettily vindictive, not to mention shockingly disproportionate, to be his expected triumph – and the film’s tense climactic sequence restages the working-class shellshock of The Deer Hunter (1978) in an entirely bourgeois milieu and associates, through editing alone rather than any direct causal (or indeed Oedipal) chain, a son’s smiling entry into adulthood with his father’s violent death. There is just too much messily contradictory information to process here for this conclusion to be dismissed as in any way pat. So these scenes from two marriages are a trip alright, played out in the twilight zone of the American dream, where fate is as arbitrary as change is inevitable.  

Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin) and Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts) in tick-infested woods

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Synopsis: Long Island, 1979. Sensitive 15-year-old Scott Bartlett thinks his mother Brenda is “crazy” for endlessly dwelling on their former life in Queens, while he worships his father Mickey, an aggressive, upwardly mobile real estate developer who spends much of his time working on a modern dreamhouse for the family, but is rarely at their actual home. Scott wishes he could stand up for himself like his older brother Jimmy, back home briefly from military service – and he fantasises about Adrianna Bragg, the somewhat older, wiser girl next door whose mother Melissa works for Mickey and whose father Charlie, caught in the feverish grip of Lyme disease, struggles to keep up appearances at home. After flirting with Adrianna at a Christmas party, Scott heads back to her place to try his first reefer, but Mickey and Melissa are already there, having sex in the games room as a hidden Charlie watches. A few days later, at Jimmy’s going-away party, a drunk Mickey dances publicly and passionately with Melissa. Jimmy disavows Mickey, and reveals to Scott that he signed up only to get away from his father.  

1980. Scott lies to friends at school about heavy petting with Adrianna, apologises to Brenda for misjudging her, and distances himself from Mickey – who moves into the new house after being kicked out by Brenda. Charlie confronts Mickey in a bar. Scott hospitalises a bully, leading his parents to start talking again. At the party following his Confirmation, Scott is reconciled with Adrianna, and they lose their virginity together. The next morning, as Scott and Adrianna leave in the school bus, Charlie, berated by Melissa for his inactivity, grabs his deer-hunting rifle and shoots Mickey dead in the new house that has just been put up for sale. 

 strap: Derick Martini’s coming-of-age domestic drama plays out scenes from two marriages in the twilight zone of the American dream

Anton Bitel