In Lymelife, Cynthia Nixon, as real estate agent Melissa Bragg in a New York suburb in 1979, looks skinny and a shade skanky, like an aging out-of-town version of a T. Rex groupie. And yet here she is in the real estate office trying to sell parcels in a housing development to people from other countries. ‘It’s the American Dream, Mr. Patel. On Long Island.’ Her boss, Mickey Bartlett (Alec Baldwin, he of the reptilian gaze and surface-to-air anger), is planning to become a millionaire in one year developing new homes in a place he calls Bartletown (what else?). And since they are next-door neighbors, the two are not so secretly engaged in schtupping one another. Mickey’s wife Brenda (Jill Hennessy) is trying to tune him out but the song is getting monotonous. Melissa’s husband Charlie (Timothy Hutton), spends his time in cheap gray bargain suits, sweating profusely and lurking in the basement, imaging that deer are trying to psychically commune with him. Charlie is slowly slipping away (possibly) to the effects of Lyme disease. Or he may just be another strung out sixties reject (he says the Lyme disease feels like a ‘perpetual acid trip’).
Lyme disease in the Long Island burb is the horror malady of the moment, as constructing new homes smack dab in the middle of the woods may be beautiful but it is also nightmarish. Radio announcers point out that Lyme disease causes psychiatric disturbances and severe mental disorders. Mothers weep at the thought of their kids contracting it and duct-tape the kiddies’ clothing together to keep out the ticks. But if Lyme disease is the rampant contagion that all fear, it must have seeped into the residents’ skulls and infected their brains. Because the only sensible parental character in Lymelife is Charlie, and he is obviously nuts.
This is what Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin) has to deal with. He is 15 years old, gets beaten up by high school bullies, and pines (with Culkin’s great moondog eyes) for the Braggs’ precocious and not-so-sweet 16-year-old Adrianna (Emma Roberts).
Everything about the Bartletts and the Braggs is rapidly fraying around the edges and getting ready to snap. Scott hopes for the best when his big brother Jimmy (Kieran Culkin) comes back home, en route to fighting in the Falkland Islands. Scott still sees his parents as his parents, but Jimmy has another point of view, and his arrival launches the family dynamics into orbit. For Scott, he manages to come of age not only sexually but also with the realization that we all end up facing: that one’s parents are actually deeply troubled and sick souls.
First-time director Derick Martini jumps right into the fray headfirst with reverse image cuts and an accurately rendered late-’70s feel for all these greedy and self absorbed liopleurodons, crawling out of the muck of ’60s idealism and Me Decade hedonism, setting the stage for the malignant and desperate times we now live in 30 years later. The mood is enhanced by a keen selection of appropriate ’70s song styles, from Bob Dylan to Frank Sinatra, the music reflected in Rory Culkin’s wide-eyed expressions of innocence and experience.
Lymelife has a tone of desperate hilarity, and that desperation is tightened as Scott wanders closer to Adrianna (culminating in an excruciatingly awkward and funny scene of deflowering) as their families and his conscience explode. Baldwin is in blood vessel-bursting mode in a loud and angry confrontation scene with Brenda in their kitchen that sends him out to live in the model home next door (when Scott tells his Dad that the new model house design looks like the Millennium Falcon, Mickey states acidly, ‘You mean the Millennium Falcon in a good way’).
But in spite of all the acting chops (Baldwin and Hutton are brilliant) the core of the film is Rory Culkin. Culkin lends the movie an almost silent film intensity, and no matter happens to Scott in the film, you bleed right along with him.
Lymelife, passionate and melancholy, captures the yearning and despair of growing up in the late ’70s at the beginning of the end of the American Dream and the desire to, as Van Morrison sang about in a song of that era, ‘open up the window, let me breathe.’ As Scott tells Adrianna at one point in the film, ‘No matter where you go on Long Island, you can always hear the train.’
Mind the poison oak.