[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
As long as Levittowns across the nation produce years of standard issue adolescent angst we’ll keep receiving films like “Lymelife,” the latest in the inexhaustible Sundance-level indie subgenre of mediocre suburban dysfunctional family/coming-of-age dramedies. I fear the problem is not the premise nor the milieu: I was raised in a suburb not too different from this debut’s fictional Long Island village (as performed by Montclair, New Jersey), and I would be more than happy to champion a film that could say and do something original with picket fence- and manicured lawn-set lust and longing. “Lymelife,” however, seems to go perversely out of its way to avoid originality. By all appearances it’s an autobiographical bildungsroman, right down to a late-Seventies backdrop that too proudly alerts us to the formative pop culture markers (“Star Wars,” Yoo-Hoo) of its director’s youth — but judging by its rote trajectories and condescending devices, “Lymelife” instead withers down to a deeply impersonal shell of a film.
As directed by Derick Martini and co-written by Derick and brother Steven, “Lymelife” examines—with humor!—the hypocrisies and frustrations of two intertwined families with teenage children, one of whom, Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin), is our shy, sensitive, and boringly sympathetic protagonist. Engaging character traits are reserved for everyone else around him, all of whom are damaged in some telegraphed way: paterfamilias Mickey (Alec Baldwin) is a boorish lout whom Scott initially worships through rose-tinted doe eyes; mother Brenda (Jill Hennessy) is a flighty, overprotective pushover who wraps her son in duct tape to insulate him from the dreaded Lyme-spreading ticks that are the fear du jour; older brother Jimmy (Kieran Culkin) fulfills his fraternal duties as his brother’s physical protector but also disillusions Scott by inflating the importance of his unimpressive stint in the army.
All variations on clichés—though one can’t help but wonder if Macaulay’s brothers were cast as a nod both to the Martinis as well as their real life SOB dad and fractured family—but none as pronounced as those witnessed in the Bragg family, comprised of a jaded, pot smoking, Lyme-ridden and out of work father (Timothy Hutton); a materialistic, bitchy matriarch (Cynthia Nixon) who has an affair with her real-estate developer boss Mickey; and medicated, take-no-shit daughter Adrianna (Emma Roberts). The pieces fall predictably into place—for example, the Bartletts’ marital rift is symbolized by Mickey’s ersatz dream house (built more for himself than Brenda) in the cookie cutter subdivision from which he plans to make a windfall, and Martini offers multiple montage sequences featuring close-ups of a life-size model of the subdivision (with Baldwin in the film one almost expects Beetlejuice to pop out) that obnoxiously echoes his film’s juvenile, indiscriminate tagline: “The American Dream Sucks.”
Of course it wouldn’t a wholly generic suburban mope without an induction into manhood via first-time sex. The courtship leading up to this watershed event is as dull as Scott himself: Adrianna initially dates a more popular boy, Scott mendaciously brags about fooling around with her, their making up is sealed with secret drinking and joint rolling, she shows him her tits in a confession booth, etc., etc. Constantly photographed in slo-mo point of view shots (to songs like “Ten Commandments of Love”—the soundtrack, which ranges from “Cheek to Cheek” to Boston, isn’t eclectic so much as schizophrenic), Adrianna possesses few qualities beyond those of the Love Interest, a lazy character conception not helped any by Roberts’s blandly “hot” presence.
“Lymelife” isn’t all bad. Mickey and Brenda’s dissolving marriage offers some fine, tense moments by refusing to paint either party as a victim or victimizer, and Baldwin—who’s now comfortably settled into the wiser, gentler second act of his career—imbues his cheating, selfish father with redeeming warmth. Yet Martini squanders this scenario’s melancholy—a mood not quite matched by a weakly lensed autumnal setting—with an unearned deux ex machina in which Hutton’s cuckolded Charlie Bragg, Lyme-delirious and wielding a shotgun, goes all “American Beauty” on our asses. It’s an unoriginal, desperate attempt to lend weight to Martini’s mostly platitudinous family dynamics, and embarrassingly senseless to boot, not because it reflects the state of the world, but because it so appropriately caps a senseless film.