(2008)3Derek ArmstrongAn epidemic of suburban hysteria, such as a lice outbreak, should make a perfect backdrop for a good period piece. Any era is defined in part by where people directed their irrational fears. The meat and bones of such a story would still have to be the character relationships, but weaving in a healthy dose of atmospheric paranoia would add those crucial components of dimension and flavor.
Set in the early '80s and aware of that fact almost to a fault, Derick Martini's Lymelife has all the ingredients to be such a film...if only it made good on the title's implied promise of focusing on Lyme disease. Sure, there's the worrywart mother (Jill Hennessy) duct-taping the exposed apertures in her son's clothing, and an unemployed neighbor (Timothy Hutton) who has actually contracted the disease. But these promising entry points are quickly forgotten in favor of a standard-issue coming-of-age story, which could have been swapped in from any number of contemporary independent films. The young fellow on the cusp of adulthood is high school junior Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin), the kid with the duct-taped pant legs. Scott's spent the greater part of his childhood in love with his neighbor Adrianna (Emma Roberts) and looking up to his father, Mickey (Alec Baldwin), a real-estate speculator launching a development on the lot adjacent to their Long Island home. A homecoming by his military brother (Kieran Culkin, channeling Tobey Maguire) helps Scott identify the cracks in his family life, including his mother's drinking and his father's infidelity. As Mickey Bartlett cheats with Adrianna's mother (Cynthia Nixon), Adrianna's father (Hutton) deteriorates further under the strain of the pathogens in his blood.
The main problem with Lymelife is not its failure to engage the particulars of Lyme disease, beyond the occasional high-pitched whine in the soundtrack to simulate the perspective of the inflicted. Rather, it's the character portion that comes up short. There isn't a spark of life in either of the film's broken marriages, any hint of a chemistry that has dissipated over time. Hence, there's no emotional weight to the betrayals and bickering, at least one episode of which is almost laughable. Because the film hits such familiar beats on the alienation between cheating spouses, their cuckolded partners, and their disillusioned children, the third-act plot developments telegraph themselves well in advance.
Lymelife does have some strong moments, notably the scenes between Roberts and Rory Culkin. Their perpetrations and flirtations feel true to the teenage experience, and are plenty of fun. The soulful awkwardness of Culkin's gaze makes him the perfect yin to Roberts' spunky yang, and when these two are onscreen, they bring out the best in Derek and Steven Martini's script. It's the overall story, as well as Derick Martini's directing, that needed help in distinguishing Lymelife from its peers.