A low-budget film with a strong cast, Derick Martini’s feature Lymelife was written in collaboration with his brother Steven Martini (and executive produced by Martin Scorsese), and what makes the film work is undoubtedly the authenticity of the personal experiences that the two brothers have put into a semi-fictional but based on real events account of growing up in suburban Long Island. It also helps having a very good cast to bring those characters to life, not least is the fine idea of using two real-life brothers, Rory and Kieran Culkin, to play their equivalent parts in the film.
Lymelife is a coming-of-age film then, and, to be honest, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal here to distinguish it from other coming-of-age stories in movies and in fiction. The dysfunctional family where the parents are going through a break-up, leaving the children caught in-between uncomprehending and damaged to a large extent by what happens recalled for me at times Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and The Whale (more so than the American Beauty comparisons that have been made elsewhere), but in its period detail, in the childhood experiences and the somewhat anachronistic references to the war in the Falklands, the film is also reminiscent of David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green. While the US setting inevitably pushes Lymelife more towards the former model of the growing-up experience, the latter shows that it is a universal experience, but it’s in the specifics of the time and the location that the film finds its own particular voice and reveals some nice points of detail.
Here, the main character is 15-year old Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin) and the issues he faces are the same as many boys of his age – the age-old problems of dealing with bullying at school and trying to fathom the mindset of a girl he is attracted to, Adrianna (Emma Roberts). Scott and Adrianna have grown up together, their families being close neighbours, but the small difference in ages is now starting to show, Adrianna becoming more interested in the more mature boys at college, leaving Scott to make immature and petulant remarks and go home to take comfort in Star Wars fantasies with his kit model of the Millennium Falcon. About to make his Confirmation and officially become an adult, Scott has some growing up to do and responsibilities to assume.
Although his father’s home building business is prospering with the growth of the suburban sprawl in Long Island, the Bartlett family have other domestic problems. Scott’s mother (Jill Hennessy) misses life back in Queens and is acting strangely, while his father Mickey (Alec Baldwin) is behaving like an old rogue and dallying with Adrianna’s mother (Cynthia Nixon). His brother Jimmy (Kieran Culkin) meanwhile, a soldier on leave and back home for a while, has just received news that he is due to be shipped out to the Falklands, where hostilities have just broken out. Relations in the family situation are, to say the least, somewhat strained.
As some of the preceding paragraph indicates, the film is set in a very specific period of the seventies, and it’s here that the film excels. Not so much in its evocation of the period – although it does feel natural and not at all “designer 70s” – as much as in how it finds a way to relate it with the behaviour of the characters. Certainly much of this is just well-observed if unexceptional material, but through the location, the time period and the setting, the director and writer manage to draw-out other personality traits and suggest deeper undercurrents in the relationships that lie between them exceptionally well. The Lyme disease referred to in the title, a parasitic bug that Adrianna’s father (Tim Hutton) has contracted, has repercussions for both the families, involving a barely perceptible, but at the same time relentless slow creep of degenerative breakdown and general malaise.
It’s from Scott’s perspective and his coming-of-age however that this is most successfully evoked. The turning point arrives at an unusual and understated juncture, during a conversation with Adrianna, the two young people sharing of a joint and discussing, in passing, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Scott commenting that Holden Caulfield is just as phoney as the rest of the characters. Not as pretentious or as referential as this might sound, despite the subject being one of a coming-of-age, this observation comes at a point where he becomes aware of his father’s infidelities, and thereafter his view of what seems like “phoney” behaviour in those around him changes as he starts to see depths and connections that he was too young to observe before. And perhaps he’s still too young to make any significant impact on how those events set in motion eventually play out. After a few more faltering missteps along the way, Scott however starts to grow up in his behaviour in the area of romance to a more positive outcome.
As well handled these aspects of the script are, every one of the characters having a distinct personality, the performances are just as strong, bringing them fully to life and imbuing them with personality and character, with perhaps only Cynthia Nixon’s character not fully fleshed out. There’s evidently a genuine brotherly quality between Rory and Kieran Culkin that works to the film’s advantage, but such is the depth of personality and history evoked in each of the other characters, that you suspect that the filmmakers would have made this work even without real-life brothers in the roles. That’s not to diminish the performances of the Culkin’s, both of whom are impressive. It’s important that the viewer sympathises particularly with Scott, and Rory Culkin strikes the perfect balance between youthful innocence and wilful petulance. While Lymelife is in many ways then a familiar coming-of age story, it’s one that is exceptionally well evoked and carefully nuanced, filled with performances, even from Alec Baldwin, that are a joy to watch.