Wow. I swore nothing good could ever come out of Sundance, since now it’s ruined by its own success, like anyone who appears on a reality show. No longer a film showcase, it’s become more about the film festival than the films. So when I discovered Derick Martini’s second film Lymelife was hatched in the Sundance repository, I shuddered despite the dynamic cast. But it was that cast — and some hammer to the gut performances — that elevated what would have been a pretty prototypical indie film into a work of sheer fucking art.
At its core, Lymelife is a period drama about two neighboring families in late 1970’s New York coming apart at the seams. The Bartlett’s, helmed by developer Mickey (Alec Baldwin), are working to foster a boom of suburban sprawl. The mother Brenda (Jill Hennessy) misses her Queens friends and lifestyle and now banished to the sticks, finds herself growing increasingly neurotic. One son Jimmy (Kieran Culkin) has ditched his family for the military. While the other brother Scott (Rory Culkin) desperately pines for his childhood friend Adrianna (Emma Roberts) in between beatings at school. The Braggs are the unwitting catalysts to the chaotic chemistry eroding the Bartlett’s. Charlie Bragg (Timothy Hutton) was bitten by a tick and is slowly dissolving under the effects of Lyme Disease, while his wife Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) scorns him for the embrace of Mickey.
It has all the expected trappings of indie drama with affairs and madness, loud passionate speeches, with breaking dishes, and shouted drunkenly across bars. There’re playful first kisses, awkward touches, and savage beatings. The template’s what you guess it would be, but it is the phenomenal acting that makes Lymelife shine. Essentially an ensemble, the cast repeatedly tears it up, to the point that the ending — while jerky — still had me flinching and squirming.
You know Alec Baldwin and Timothy Hutton are good, this is a given. Baldwin finally breaks away from the Donaghy-type role to play something a little more sedated. While I love him when he’s a mouthy bastard (see Outside Providence, if only for him), it’s always good to know he can play smooth. Hutton shows you why he won an Academy award. His Charlie is fucking haunting, and in every scene you can see how dead he is in the shell. I wouldn’t be shocked if this managed a few backdoor award nods, but at the very least, it will get people remembering why Timothy Hutton’s a star.
The Brothers Culkin have learned from their brother’s mistakes. While Mac’s trying to build himself back, god love him, with interesting turns acting and even writing novels, his brother’s have steadily emerged as indie fucking geniuses. As my girlfriend sadly reminds me — they’re hot!! (She put the !! on there.) Kieran tends to play the nerd with his stellar turns in Igby Goes Down and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, but here he plays the military brother with savageness. You question Martini’s choice until you see him, cigarette dangling from the side of his lip, deliver a savage fucking beatdown to his brother’s tormentor. And really, if you haven’t seen Rory Culkin in Mean Creek, you’re doing both yourself and Josh Peck a disservice. Here’s where Rory takes the mantle from his brother and plays the quiet one. What’s elegant is that Scott perfectly claims some of his brother Jimmy’s bravado and splashes it on his weakling like drug-store cologne. It goes without saying that their brotherly chemistry works, and in fucking spades. (Thery’re hot!! (That was me.)) I haven’t seen a familial paring this good since the Gyllenhaals in Donnie Darko.
But it was the ladies who had all the heavy lifting. They were real, and they were spectacular. Jill Hennessy had to play a neurotic shrew, a beleaguered housewife, which is pretty much a fucking genre by itself these days. She bellows and shrills, in a nails on chalkboard accent, and it’s so wonderful to see her go toe-to-toe with Baldwin and come out on top. Even better is watching how she can’t figure out how to mother her two sons. She’s absolutely uncomfortable in her skin in Bartlettown, and it shows in all her scenes, like an awkward puppy in a dragon costume. Cynthia Nixon killed me as Melissa. It makes her turn on Sex and the Shitty all the more depressing. Because when you see her rip up in this, it makes you realize what she’s capable of. She’s electric and depressing, and it’s something to watch. But Emma Roberts, oh, Emma Roberts. She doesn’t steal the show, but she holds her own with a vengeance. With her pedigree, I wouldn’t have thought it possible, though I love Eric and tolerate Toothsome. Emma Roberts is fierce, sexy, and naive. She’s like Natalie Portman in the Professional without the needless precociousness. Her only job is to be the love object to Scotty’s desires, and by God does she pull it off. Nancy Drew’s got some chops, who fucking knew?
I give Martini credit for letting his actors do their thing. The material’s strong if prepackaged, like high-end IKEA. But the man knows how to frame a shot. There are several wonderful moments where dialogue occurs in the forefront while action goes on subtly in the background. Scotty and Adrianna are at a boring church Christmas party where they exchange flirtations, well, okay, Adrianna bullies Scott into adoring her. She makes him do a twirl and slaps him a squeeze on the lower cheeks. It is only then, through a subtle flinch in the background, do we realize that Brenda caught a glimpse of it as she was sitting drinking wine. Her shocked half-smile says volumes.
Lymelife is a solid effort from Martini, but he already knew that. Being the darling of Sundance sets you on a monorail track to indie mediocrity, and hopefully Martini will be able to continue to build some passion in his work. I’m curious to see his first film, which has a ridiculous film student name about Fish or Tigers or some crap, because I want to know if he’s got some sort of sneaky-ass talent. He’s got a bright future, if only putting talent on display like an adequate butcher.
Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com.