Lymelife, the first feature from co-writer/director Derick Martini, has what we’ve come to expect of movies cultivated in Sundance’s famous labs: an expert cast of character actors (including New York faves Cynthia Nixon and Alec Baldwin), funny-sad writing, and a gawky teen protagonist, played here by Rory Culkin, navigating the minefields of adolescence. If the movie ultimately feels like something less than the sum of those parts, it’s nonetheless a heartfelt addition to a well-worn genre.
Tick tension pervades Lymelife’s 1979 Long Island suburbs, with ailing local Charlie (Timothy Hutton) serving as a cautionary example of the ravages of Lyme disease. The resulting anxiety implodes in behaviors both comic and pathetic: Melissa (Nixon), Charlie’s wife, carries on an indiscreet affair with Mickey (Baldwin), her boss, while Brenda (Jill Hennessy), Mickey’s wife, swaths son Scott (Culkin) in turtlenecks and masking tape to ward off the nefarious bugs. But sensitive Scott hardly needs further mollycoddling; after a school bully pummels him, his comely crush Adrianna (Emma Roberts), herself Charlie and Melissa’s daughter, suggests he call his mother. Adding to the angst is Jimmy (Kieran Culkin, playing sibling to real-life brother Rory), a volatile soldier who can barely contain his fury at his unfaithful father.
While one fears at first that Lymelife will join the likes of Garden State and Juno, with their self-congratulatory soundtracks and packaged quirks, director Martini shepherds this autobiographical story, co-written with his brother, to richer territory. He never shrinks from the squirmy sides of adolescence; when Scott and Adrianna kiss, their fumblings feel unpracticed, embarrassing, a refreshing departure from the perfectly polished hookups of Hollywood. And the indignities of growing up aren’t limited to the teenagers here. With its two imploding marriages, Martini’s is the rare movie where parents and children are equally well drawn. As the spurned Brenda, Jill Hennessy is especially fine, steely and protective with her sons, vulnerable and angry with her husband.
Surrounded by veteran performers, Rory Culkin, delivering on the promise he first showed in You Can Count on Me, lofts the entire enterprise. Much has been made of the tricky transition for actresses from child roles to adult ones but the crossover might well be harder for young men (Haley Joel Osment and Elijah Wood seem practically fossilized in the ages at which they first became famous). But here’s hoping the Culkins, with their peculiar presences registering the highs and humiliations of young adulthood more vividly than those of pretty-boy peers, keep landing parts. While Kieran plays excellently against type here as an imposing jock, Rory carries the movie with his deadpan stillness. Indeed, he’s so unaffected he makes his charismatic costar Emma Roberts appear artificial (it doesn’t help that she’s playing the precocious ingénue who inexplicably falls for the nerdy hero).
Lymelife leaves some seams showing; I’m docking half a star because the ending, which I won’t reveal, is that irritating. Martini’s structuring is occasionally awkward, with some key characters kept off-screen for so long we lose interest in them. He also succumbs to a few tired tropes, with Lymelife joining the ever-growing number of movies (Sideways, Knocked Up, any Woody Allen flick ever) in which a homely man-child draws the affections of a preternaturally ravishing woman. And as the Bristol Palins of the world proliferate, I, for one, could do without another movie in which two smart teenagers lose their virginities without contraception or consequences. But even with its flaws, the film nonetheless signals the emergence of a brave, thoughtful new voice. It’s oddly fitting that Lymelife should be as messy and imperfect as its characters.