Coming of age in 70s New Jersey
As I mentioned last week, coming of age films seem to be a mainstay at the moment. The latest entry is "Lymelife" (opening April 24 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas). The film stars real life brothers Kieran and Rory Culkin in a story written by two real life brothers, Derick and Steven Martini, about their real life experiences growing up in suburban Long Island back in the 1970s.
"Lymelife" takes its name from the Lyme disease carried by deer ticks and that causes first a rash and then may be followed by neurological, cardiac or joint abnormalities. It also serves as a metaphor for what's ailing the suburban families at the center of the film. Charlie (Timothy Hutton) has the disease in both it real manifestations as well as its more metaphorical ones. This has made Brenda (Jill Hennessy) paranoid so she duct tapes up all the opens in her son's clothes as a precaution. But Scott (Rory Culkin) has bigger things to worry about, namely a school bully who keeps harassing him and beating him up. He's also worried about the girl next door, Adrianna (Emma Roberts), Charlie's daughter. Scott has always liked her and when she starts to take notice of him he begins to panic. Scott's life is further complicated by the fact that his architect/land developer dad Mick (Alec Baldwin) makes more money than anyone else in the neighborhood and he enjoys flaunting it. Mick also happens to be having an affair with Adrianna's mom Melissa (Cynthia Nixon). And finally, Scott's older brother Jim (Kieran Culkin) is home briefly as he waits to get shipped off to the Falkland Islands. But while he's home, he takes a moment to ruthlessly beat up the local bully and open his brother's eyes to some realities of their dysfunctional family.
Like "The Ice Storm" (although set a few years later), "Lymelife" captures the look and feel of a very specific era in American life. The Martini brothers wrote one previous screenplay, "Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire," in which they played on screen brothers sharing a house in LA. For "Lymelife," though, Derick takes the helm for the first time and turns this screenplay into something more personal. The details of living in New Jersey in the late 1970s place the film very credibly in a particular era and at a time of social change and economic downturn. Some of those elements resonate with people today who find themselves out of work and facing economic hardships as investments, home prices and retirement funds have all been spiraling down. The Martinis convey a sickness festering among these characters and the script at its best reveals savage humor. These people hurt each other, in that particularly vicious way that wounded animals can strike out, or the way that family members can hone in on what will hurt the most.
Martini and cinematographer Frank Godwin keep the color palette mostly drab to reflect both the cold weather and the often-chilly emotions of the characters. Production designer Kelly McGehee adds to the overall drabness with her 70s interior suburban design. The contemporary home that Mick builds as a gift for his wife stands out in sharp contrast to everything else in the film and doesn't seem to fit. The film conveys a sense of class and economic divisions that are not always displayed in American films.
Since it is the brothers writing this tale, the film assumes Scott's point of view as the primary one. But in a sense it is the adults who prove more interesting and complex but not necessarily likable or admirable. Dysfunction is definitely the defining trait of the two main families as the adults provide little in the way of role models for their children.
Martini scores a talented cast for his directing debut. Baldwin delivers the nastiest performance of the bunch but is allowed some redeeming if not entirely convincing moments at the end. Hutton seems the most shattered of the bunch with his mix of illness and drugs contributing to his unsteadiness. But when it comes time for him to strike out - as in a bar scene with Baldwin - he proves to have some venom of his own. The women are less interesting both because of how the characters are written and because of the actresses. Hennessey and Nixon seem more one-note than the male characters. The Culkin kids do well as the brothers. Rory gets to be a physical and emotional punching bag for much of the film. He does have a stellar moment as he mixes "Taxi Driver" and "Star Wars" for a Travis Bickle you-talking-to-me moment in front of the mirror.
"Lymelife" (rated R for language, some sexual content, violence and drug use) falters occasionally and seems uncertain at times about its tone. But it is specific enough in its coming of age details to create a vivid and compelling film.
Companion viewing: "Ice Storm," "Igby Goes Down" (for Kieran's coming of age tale), "Outside Providence"