You'd think after films like "Ordinary People," "The Ice Storm," "American Beauty," "Revolutionary Road," even "Blue Velvet," "The 'Burbs," and "Disturbia," all explored and skewered life and love in the American suburbs that Hollywood would just about have given up trying to say anything more on the subject. But no. In 2008, Screen Media Films distributed "Lymelife" to several film festivals and a couple of theaters. Now, like so many small movies, it essentially makes its public debut on DVD, where it will no doubt remind viewers of the aforementioned, albeit better, motion pictures.
Not that "Lymelife" is so small that it doesn't feature some pretty big names in the industry. Alec Baldwin, Rory Culkin, Kieran Culkin, Jill Hennessy, Cynthia Nixon, Emma Roberts, and Timothy Hutton co-star in the project, and they all perform at a fairly high level. It's just that everything they do seems like so much déjà vu; we've seen it all before.
"Lymelife" is one of those coming-of-age, family-life dramas so popular with independent filmmakers. Certainly, these are subjects to which we can all relate, so filmmakers must figure they have a built-in audience. It's just that there is only so much they can do covering such familiar territory. The disc's keep case tells us that co-writer and director Derick Martini based the story on his own childhood experiences, which is also par for the course. Maybe we can forgive him this time, since it's his first time helming a major motion picture, and what better way to start than with something he knows best, like his own life. I just wonder if his own life was really as sappy and melodramatic as this picture. (Still, it's the movies; you gotta make something people will watch.)
Since Martini supposedly based the story on his own life, it takes place in the past, in this case somewhere in the early Eighties ("Star Wars" is already a national institution, and there is mention of soldiers going off to the Falkland Islands, which would have been around 1982). However, a glance at Martini's biography indicates he was born in 1975, making him about seven or eight years old in the early Eighties, whereas the main character in the movie is fifteen. I dunno. It's not important.
The main character is Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin), a sensible mid-teen with a passive streak who gets himself beaten up by a bully at school. It's his story, seen through his eyes. He's at a point in his life where not only is he changing physically into an adult, he's beginning to see the world as an adult as well. What he sees he doesn't especially like. I mean, who would, given the family and neighbors he's got to contend with?
Scott's father, Mickey Bartlett (Alec Baldwin), is a prosperous housing developer, about to sell a whole tract and become a millionaire. He's also a philanderer, carrying on an affair with his assistant, Melissa Bragg (Cynthia Nixon). Scott's mother, Brenda Bartlett (Jill Hennessy), knows all about her husband's infidelities and hates him for it. Part of young Scott's coming-of-age experience is becoming aware of his parents' problems. Scott's older brother, Jimmy Bartlett (Kieran Culkin), helps him see the world as it really is. Jimmy has recently jointed the army, and when we meet him he's home on leave. He's the opposite of Scott; he's tough and decisive. When he finds out about the bully at school, he beats the crap out of him.
Meanwhile, in the Bragg household we have the beautiful Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts, of "Nancy Drew" fame), a young woman whom Scott has been lusting after most of his life. She's more mature than Scott, however, and most of the time treats him like a little brother. I already mentioned Adrianna's mother, Melissa, who is carrying on with Scott's father. The rationalization is that Adrianna's mother no longer loves her husband, Charlie Bragg (Timothy Hutton), because he has Lyme disease, he's given up on life, and he's wasting away with the sickness. Adrianna knows about her mother's indiscretions and her father's apathy, but her main concern is that her parents don't appreciate her. Typical teen.
Everyone in the picture is unhappy, yet we can see from the movie's sweet, leisurely tone that not only tragedy but some joy will ensue. The movie does not disappoint.
The viewer gets a nagging suspicion early on that maybe the filmmakers meant some or all of this as satire, as black comedy, poking lighthearted fun at the universal problems lying beneath the idyllic, Long Island suburban setting. But the satire is not particularly amusing; what's more, it's so obvious, so common, and so predictable, it's hard to care about it. Mostly, everything just goes by slowly and routinely as we wait out the plot's inevitable and foreseeable conclusion.
The thing, too, is that like many modern Hollywood movies, this one assumes that everyone smokes, drinks, takes drugs, has affairs, and swears constantly. It's as though people in Hollywood live in this very special world and suppose everyone else lives in it as well. For instance, does everyone in your circle of family, friends, and neighbors--from children to parents--use the f-word in every sentence everywhere they go? They do here, and from overuse the profanity tends to detract from rather than add to the reality of the characters and situations.
OK, to be fair, "Lymelife" is not a bad movie, and there are a couple of things in it I thought were funny. Scott's overprotective mother tapes up his clothing like a mummy to prevent his getting bitten by ticks, and both sets of parents get the bulk of their marital counseling from "The Phil Donahue Show." Those are cute touches, but ones that come all too infrequently in the film.
The video quality is the best part of the package. The transfer retains the movie's original aspect ratio, 2.35:1, enhanced for widescreen TVs. The picture looks remarkably natural, not too bright or too dark, with colors that stand out brightly and well contrasted yet remain quite realistic. Object delineation and interior detailing are good for standard-definition, and a touch of film grain adds texture to the image.
The disc provides Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo as the audio choices, although I'm not sure why. There really isn't a lot to choose between them, since the 5.1 track displays very little actual surround information. On a few occasions the background music takes on a modicum of rear-channel bloom, and on even fewer occasions we can hear some faint crowd noise. Otherwise, this is a center-channel, dialogue-driven production, where even the front-channel stereo sounds rather restricted. Like the movie itself, the soundtrack never offers up much joy, its dynamic impact and frequency response limited to the barest minimum necessary to help clarify the midrange.
There isn't much about the extras we haven't seen before. First up is the mandatory audio commentary, this one by the director Derick Martini and co-star Rory Culkin. Among other things, the director admits that Trufaut's "The 400 Blows" influenced his film. Next up, there are eight deleted scenes, totaling about seven-and-half minutes, with optional commentary. Following those items is an alternate ending, again with optional commentary. This ending, by the way, goes on for about nineteen minutes before we see any difference from the original, namely a less-ambiguous closing shot. I'm not sure why we had to sit through so much all over again for so little.
The extras conclude with twenty scene selections, several trailers before the main feature begins, an embossed slipcover for the keep case; English as the only spoken language, and Spanish subtitles.
"Lymelife" comes across as well made, well acted, well shot, well edited, and well directed. In fact, Derick Martini guides the film quite sensitively. It's just that the film doesn't do or say much we haven't already seen or heard before. Growing up in the suburbs can be just as difficult, just as frustrating, and just as rewarding as growing up in the big city. The American Dream isn't all it's cracked up to be and isn't all that easy to achieve. People change. Things change. And how we adjust to change determines our well being. While these are honorable themes, literature and films have dealt with them so often over the years, it's hard to say anything new about them. "Lymelife" follows a well-traveled road.