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As Mena Suvari’s Angela informs Lester (Kevin Spacey) in the events leading up to the unexpected yet inevitable gunshot near the conclusion of Allan Ball’s screenplay for Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, “I don’t think there’s anything worse than being ordinary.”
And for movies set in the undeniably ordinary yet endlessly dysfunctional location of American suburbia, this seems to be a recurring theme. Typically we’re presented with characters not unlike ourselves, relatives, friends, and neighbors who keep busy with projects, affairs, and overcrowded schedules-- essentially running to avoid standing still, keeping the noise going so they won't be left in silence, and ultimately trying to create a different version of themselves than the one they see in the mirror.
In Lymelife-- the feature filmmaking debut from screenwriter turned director Derick Martini (which he penned along with his brother and fellow collaborator on the charming ‘90s indie Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire)-- we’re presented with a highly personal film inspired by their own childhood experiences. And—similar to Beauty, a bullet is fired in the finale but the Martinis take a much more intimate approach to their storytelling than Ball and Mendes’ satirical contemporary Oscar winner.
Presented by executive producer Martin Scorsese and co-produced as well by its A-list star Alec Baldwin (along with his talented brother William), this film made by two brothers that stars two brothers (the supremely gifted Kieran and Rory Culkin), utilizes a plot-line that involves two brothers but busies itself in its tale of two families whose lives are intertwined in several ways, residing next door to one another in 1979 Long Island.
Setting the stage for the justification of the title, its role as a metaphor, and the mood of the piece-- the film opens as radio commentators discuss the fear, ignorance, and hysteria surrounding the high incidence of Lyme disease carried by the ticks of deer that share the same space as our ensemble cast of characters. Shortly thereafter we’re presented with Rory Culkin’s sensitive, awkward, fifteen-year-old central protagonist Scott Bartlett who—despite trying to give himself countless pep talks in the mirror to toughen himself up or say the things he really wants to say to others—is hindered by the actions of his loving but over-protective mother, Brenda (Jill Hennessy).
Securing Scott’s clothing with duct tape before he leaves the house and making sure he wears a suit on the day of a school picture without realizing it’s precisely the equivalent of a “kick me” sign for a particular bullying classmate-- sadly Hennessy’s own insecurities and frustrations that the home is the only thing within her control go unnoticed by her adolescent son who looks up to his ultra macho, real estate developer father, Mickey (Alec Baldwin).
Unaware of the growing wedge in his parents’ relationship, like most teens, Scott has enough on his plate with overactive hormones that are all aimed in the direction of his beautiful sixteen year old neighbor Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts).
Exuding confidence, Adrianna is the type of girl who pretends she’s oblivious to the effect she has on the local boys but secretly uses it as currency, having Scott wrapped around her finger as she seems flirtatious one minute and then shrugs him off with the dismissal that he’s like a younger brother.
However, much like the rest of the characters, we realize that it’s a façade and Adrianna is only portraying a girl who has it altogether as her home life rivals Scott’s for the prize of most dysfunctional in the film as her psychologically emasculated, clinically depressed Lyme disease afflicted father Charlie (Timothy Hutton) spends his days out of work and either staring vacuously in dark rooms or wandering in the woods with a rifle trying to get revenge on any deer he can find, even if they’re only drawn on a paper target.
With the power struggle definitely shifted in a relationship that’s more maternal than romantic as his now bread-winning wife Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) chides him not to forget to take his medication and offers to give him rides into the city to look for work—Charlie stays numb when he catches his wife in the act of having an affair with Scott’s father who also happens to be her boss.
Although he’s as unwilling to face reality as his neighbor, Charlie is the opposite of Brenda who puts on a good front and tries to control everything else to avoid dealing with her smug husband who surprises her with a birthday present that they will be moving into an ultra-modern cookie-cutter designed planned community he’s narcissistically named “Bartlettown.”
With Scott siding with his father, it’s only fitting—as is the case in most families as children seem to pick a parent and align themselves like a suburban version of The Art of War-- that he gets a wake-up call and a foil with the arrival of his scene-stealing older brother (both in the film and in real life) Kieran Culkin’s Jimmy who returns from basic military training shortly before he must journey to the Falkland Islands.
Easily the odd man out as the heroic, confrontational, and assured Jimmy sides with his mother as they recall the good old days living in Queens (in an area free of deer ticks), Scott is the last one to realize what’s really been going on right under his nose as slowly his family and neighbors he assumed he knew so well begin to drop their suburban armor of perfect clothes and makeup until he sees them fully-- flaws and all.
While initially I feared going in—especially considering the endless comparisons to Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm that flooded most reviews following its screening at both the Sundance and Toronto Film Festival (where it earned its director an award)—that the last thing we needed was another family dysfunction piece, the Martini brothers’ character-driven work remains sharp and compelling throughout.
Filled with allegories and metaphors ranging from the idea that Lyme disease is a scapegoat for the disease of dissatisfaction lurking into the lives of our characters and Mickey’s literal vocation to try and build an American dream with little perfect homes to hide the imperfections that live within them—it’s a surprisingly authentic and intelligent film that benefits from the command of its dynamic cast.
Clocking in at only a little over ninety minutes—while at times the characters seem as though they’re under-written (most notably in the case of Nixon)—I was riveted by how much the actors brought to even the tiniest scenes whether it was by witnessing Hutton be truly challenged by a role for the first time in years as an alternately enraged yet exhausted man but far more so by yet another dynamic turn by Kieran Culkin.
Having blown me away with his work in Igby Goes Down, Culkin’s absolutely mesmerizing turn in this film is an obvious high-point for as soon as he saunters into frame, it’s elevated from the limitations and clichés of its origin as another dissatisfying slice of Americana that’s hard to digest. He does this instinctively with his buoyant and fascinating portrayal as the only cast member and character who has what it takes to fully call his father out in a scene that manages to top two impressively written ones featuring Hennessy and Hutton respectively.
Par for the course for a man who memorably said “I don’t play God, I am God,” in Malice, Alec Baldwin manages to easily slide into his role but adds some nice depth and pathos to his character which is vastly more admirable when you realize that the award-winning 30 Rock star pulled seven-day work weeks, committed to both his day job on Tina Fey’s sitcom and Derick Martini’s low-budget film.
Committed to the project for four years (along with both Culkins, Nixon, and Hutton) that the Martinis initially developed with Kieran in mind for Scott when the project first began at the 2001 Filmmakers Lab at Sundance – this labor of love for all involved shines through in its highly polished finished product that has been slowly opening across the states in select theatres and cities since its positive film festival reception in 2008.
While others have noted that the Falkland conflict may have been used as a ‘70s substitute for our current wars in one of the film’s many allegories--watching it recently in screener form, I also couldn’t overlook the fact that it also feels incredibly contemporary in that ironically the main framework for the piece surrounds a frantic fear of a baffling disease the likes of which we’re seeing now with the Swine Flu not to mention the idea that Hutton’s character is out of work and driven to depression.
So ultimately, it seems that these repeated variables remind us that although decades change, the dysfunction stays the same as nobody wants to be considered ordinary, yet we’re still fearful about what will happen if we stray too far outside our comfort zone of little plastic houses. And this is especially true when we’re uncertain who or what we fear more—the animals with ticks, the men with rifles, or the possibility of failure that makes the fleeting shot at success seem all the more daunting.
Yet, rest assured, success is what has been achieved in this smart indie and I commend all involved for the willingness to take a risk in ensuring that this particular cinematic journey has finally arrived. And just like Kieran Culkin’s Jimmy Bartlet does in the film, it’s here like a fresh burst of energy in a tired month of run-of-the-mill studio pictures that try to present us with interchangeable plot-lines and characters that seem about as daring as a typical house in a planned community like Bartlettown.