Somewhere, there must be a handbook entitled ‘How to construct an American Indie drama’, an easy-to-follow guide for young filmmakers eager to strike that winning recipe of touching quirkiness mixed with gritty realism, topped off with a sprinkle of lo-fi charm.
You can vary it, of course. Perhaps just go for the realism (Mean Creek, Girlfight), maybe overindulge on the quirkiness (Igby Goes Down, The Wackness), or just keep it simple and have a bit of everything (Little Miss Sunshine, A Guide To Recognising Your Saints).
Lymelife, which goes one better than The Pursuit Of Happyness in stretching the English language to breaking point, isn’t afraid to wear its American Indie cred’ loud and proud. In fact, it feels so like a product of the famed Sundance Festival that it may as well be read as a handbook in itself.
Chapter one: make it semi-autobiographical. That “semi” is really important. Critics love to speculate what’s real and what’s fabricated. ‘Did you really know someone who had Lyme disease and went a little bit crazy?’
Two: set it in Smallsville, USA, an anonymous town that your characters yearn to escape from. People can kind of identify with that, you know?
Three: go period where you can. If you’re following chapters one and four, chances are you can avoid the the 90s (with no defining cultural or political event they’re pretty boring) and land in either the 80s (great hair) or the 70s (great music).
Four: make it a rites-de-passage. Or something deeper, like family, or the American Dream and how corrosive trying to achieve it can be.
Five: have a big name actor front and centre. They’ll attract more attention, and more than likely help steer the project too. An Oscar friendly face in the background doesn’t hurt either, just to balance it out.
Six: whack a Culkin brother in there while you’re at it. Can’t hurt.
Seven: end it ambivalently. Your main character needs to have an awakening, but someone’s got to die too. So good and bad, really.
All of which does Lymelife a bit of a disservice. It’s not a boring film, by any means. It has its moments, makes use of half of a nice cast, and provides an easy answer to Ryan’s Whatever Happened to the Culkins? question: most of them are in here. Well, two anyway, Rory and Kieran playing two brothers at the heart of a dysfunctional family.
But it’s never that exciting or surprising. Despite the loose, lo-fi aesthetic, it’s a film that feels like an assemblage of emotional checkpoints and big themes, jigsaw pieces that add up to a nice picture, but one that’s pretty uninspiring.
Writer-director Derick Martini has probably watched American Beauty a few times too, aping that film’s structure, albeit with a patriarch who’s a bit of a shit. Alec Baldwin’s Mickey Bartlett is a man who divides his time equally between developing luxurious family homes and cheating on his wife (former Law & Order staffer Jill Hennessey). His latest conquest is Cynthia Nixon, whose husband (Timothy Hutton) has Lyme disease (hence that quirky title) and whose daughter (Emma Roberts) is that most reliable of characters, a girl who’s caught the attention of our young lead, Rory Culkin.
From there, Martini busies the film with a number of plot strands: Hutton’s gradual decline at the hands of that disease, Baldwin’s infidelity and Hennessey’s eventual refusal to ignore it, teenage romance, father-son dynamics. With a slender running time, none of them really have the impact they should, and when the big emotional fireworks are rolled out (“I no longer have a father!”) they’re somewhat empty.
Martini’s film actually works best in those moments when it’s not trying to say anything at all: Rory talking to himself in the mirror like a geeky Travis Bickle, Hutton sharing a tense and funny drink with Baldwin knowing full well what’s going on with his wife, Kieran dishing out some well-deserved revenge to the school bully. They give the actors room to breathe life into their characters, something their female counterparts are sadly denied.
Nixon, Hennessey and Roberts are left playing the mistress, the wife and the girlfriend, talented actresses each of them but given precious little to work with beyond histrionics and dubious sexualisation. Indeed, The Daily Mail should direct their ire away from Kick Ass‘ Hit-Girl and towards Lymelife‘s much more troubling fetishing of Roberts’ 15-year-old schoolgirl.
But such controversy would be an equal disservice. Lymelife is watchable, well made, but a little too sedate to deserve any real headlines. I’m still not sure what that title means either.