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Precious, Juno-like guitar plucks seem like an odd soundtrack to open a film about Lyme disease. But Lymelife, the directorial debut of Derick Martini (which he co-wrote with his brother Steven) isn’t really about the illness. It’s about suburban isolation. It’s about loveless marriages. It’s about angry teens. Which still makes the quirky music sound very much out of place.
At least until you find out that Lymelife is a Sundance darling, first birthed by the Martinis during the festival’s 2001 film lab and finally screened there this year. Then it becomes all too clear: Sharing the angst, overanalysis, and offbeat characters of other Sundance Lab babies such as Eagle vs. Shark and Wristcutters: A Love Story, Lymelife is another not-terrible yet not-exactly-clamored-for glimpse into American Dream–driven dystopia.
The story is set in the late ’70s and centered on Scott (Rory Culkin), a 15-year-old who mopes around Long Island, crushing on childhood friend Adrianna (Emma Roberts) and watching parents Mickey and Brenda (Alec Baldwin and Jill Hennessy) become increasingly cold toward each other. An outbreak of Lyme disease makes Brenda paranoid, especially since it struck Adrianna’s dad, Charlie (Timothy Hutton). Charlie’s illness has forced his wife, Melissa (Cynthia Nixon), to become the breadwinner of the family as real-estate developer Mickey’s assistant. Melissa is bitter, Mickey is lonely—you do the math. Meanwhile, Scott and Adrianna keep getting their hormonal signals all mixed up, and Scott’s older military-enlisted brother, Jimmy (Kieran Culkin), advises the kid to get out of Dodge ASAP, lest he spend his young adulthood letting their parents’ toxicity rot his guts.
Lymelife reeks of unhappiness; throughout most of the film, the tension is excruciating as characters remain somewhat polite but are clearly tiptoeing around truths no one is brave enough to talk about. That sense of unease is the Martinis’ most impressive accomplishment—even if it doesn’t necessarily translate into worthwhile entertainment. The redundancy of the film’s issues aside, the brothers also bobble the small stuff: There’s a nearly incestuous best-friends dynamic between Jimmy and his mother that, besides its weirdness, never feels realistic considering Jimmy’s opinion of his family. And though God knows teenage girls can be mercurial, Adrianna’s behavior is so inconsistent she seems less a person than a plot device, submissive to the filmmakers’ every whim. And Scott—geez, can we get this kid some personality?
Most egregious, however, is the nagging impression that the Martinis intend the whole Lyme-disease thread as metaphor. (I suppose the title is one giveaway.) Hutton’s Charlie does little in the film except lie about in the family basement looking for work. He is obsessed, though, about killing deer, be it the hallucinatory ones his illness makes him see or the real ones that feed outside his house. Of course, it’s the tick that dug itself into Charlie that he should be angry about. Are all of Lymelife’s characters destroying their respective big pictures instead of trying to fix the little things? Probably, but you won’t really care.