An infidelity here, a dash of marijuana there—the suburban Eden post-apple is a common enough story. Film, especially, is a repeat offender of this fixation on suburbia’s trouble in paradise; “Revolutionary Road,” “The Stepford Wives,” and “American Beauty,” for example, are a few of the many films that deal with the farce of suburban bliss. Director Derick Martini’s latest dramedy, “Lymelife,” is another, but it strips that jaded quality which clings to others of the genre. What is most impressive about “Lymelife” is its ability to distinguish itself from the legacy of the flawed-suburbia film and create something wholly new.
A film developed by the Sundance Institute, “Lymelife” is the directorial debut of Derick Martini. In it, Martini presents a peeled portrait of suburban life on Long Island. The film follows Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin), a soft-spoken high school student who is incurably in love with his neighbor’s daughter, Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts). But this budding romance blossoms into a story of familial intrigue and the eventual disintegration of both families.
Scott’s father, Mickey (Alec Baldwin), owns a lucrative housing development business and has hired Adrianna’s mother (Cynthia Nixon) to enable their affair. Numbly observing their liaison is Adrianna’s father (Timothy Hutton), who is physically consumed and financially impotent because of Lyme disease, a consequence of his penchant for hunting. Meanwhile, Scott’s mother (Jill Hennessy) longs for her former life in Queens as she tries to overlook her struggling marriage. Finally, the catalyst of much of the film’s action is the return of Scott’s older brother, Jimmy (Kieran Culkin), from the army.
“Lymelife” marches to its own idiosyncratic, internal rhythm—both figuratively and literally, as Steve Martini, the director’s brother, scored the film. In the opening scene, the quick cross-cuts between shots of live-action and shots of a housing development model match the beats and thumps of the music. The sounds, however, are only a part of the film’s internal pulse. Each character’s arc acts as a sonata to the film’s whole, and scenes are explosive not because of physical action but rather because of latent energy. “Lymelife” is a dark satire, like “Little Miss Sunshine,” and its power draws from irony and moments of veracity.
Despite the film’s reliance on clichéd movie gimmicks—an angsty adolescent romance, one parent’s infidelity, and a father-son antagonism—the emotional violence in “Lymelife” is strikingly affecting. No words are left unsaid, and no character is immune to the plague that is suburbia. Rather, the film takes the old story of trouble in suburbia and twists the melodrama into something fresh, molding family dynamics into moments of poignancy. Jimmy’s tipping point, for example, presents an unfiltered picture of psychological unravel that sits starkly in the trail of the film’s ruthless emotional episodes.
For the most part, the cast is flawless in performance. It may be difficult for some to imagine Alec Baldwin as anyone other than Jack Donaghy from “30 Rock”; nevertheless, his delivery is impeccable, and he transforms his flawed character into a sympathetic one. Jill Hennessy also offers a thoughtful performance, teasing out complications of motherhood and dignity. However, unlike Baldwin and Hennessy, Roberts is the exception to the rule. A relative newcomer to the big screen, her performance is stilted, insincere, and self-conscious. Fortunately, the other actors pick up her slack to convey the film’s grit and realism.
It is certainly a daunting task for any director—let alone a first-time director—to reframe suburbia. In “Lymelife,” Derick Martini not only reframes it but also commendably reconstructs it as a plasticized, broken Eden. Sitting complacently at her desk, Mrs. Bragg exclaims in the film, “It’s the American dream, right? You’re on Long Island!” Perhaps the answer to her rhetorical question, however, is best conveyed by the gunshot that draws the film to a close.