Lymelife: infected by the American Dream

Despite its predictable warning about personal ambition, Derick Martini’s comedy is a cut above the usual indie fare.

Jayde Philips

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Derick Martini’s Lymelife is a funny and profoundly moving portrait of the American family. The film examines the highs and lows of those trying to fulfil the American dream – from the thrill of success to the devastating feeling of personal failure.

Set in Long Island in the 1970s, the film exposes the dark side of what looks like a suburban paradise, tracking the ups and downs of two dysfunctional families living through this tumultuous decade. The story revolves around the shy, awkward, 15-year-old Scott (Rory Culkin), whose family is enclosed in a world of pessimism and regret whilst an outbreak of Lyme disease threatens their community.

Scott’s father Mickey (Alec Baldwin) is a workaholic determined to be, as he puts it, a ‘chaser’, not a loser. Mickey’s wife Brenda (Jill Hennessy) is forced to endure the burden of his desperate need for success – pushing the couple to the edge of divorce. In the midst of all this turmoil, Scott develops a crush on his next-door neighbour, Adrianna (Emma Roberts). She seems to be the only person in the world who is sympathetic to Scott’s sensitivity as she also comes from a troubled family. Her depressed mother Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) is caught up in a clandestine love affair and her father Charlie (Timothy Hutton) is slowly losing his battle against Lyme disease.

True, Lymelife brings to mind several other coming-of-age indie flicks and the central story – geeky boy from weird family in American suburb falls in love with the girl next door – is not very original. Still, Lymelife is far from a run-of-the-mill Sundance contender. The exceptional performances by the blue-chip cast, combined with a gritty narrative, raises it above the level of the average independent movie.

Take the scene where Mickey and Brenda are arguing over how to punish Scott for brutally beating up a school mate (a real bully who, frankly, deserved the thrashing). Here, a typical parental conflict escalates into a whirlwind of vulgar language, animated body language and frustrated facial expressions, making it a deeply moving scene. It’s a very realistic moment and the audience is compelled to consider how these kinds of domestic scenes affect innocent children. In Lymelife, Scott and Adrianna are suffering from their parents’ shattering marriages, whilst trying to adjust to the frightening world of adulthood.

The dark side of the film is made bearable by Martini’s use of double entendres and wit, smoothing over some of the choking intensity. This is executed through the endless disputes and futile quarrels between Scott’s parents, reducing them to childlike behaviour and leading to roaring moments of laughter both on and off the screen. However, this also sometimes detracts from the seriousness of the film and the message it tries to convey.

Overall, Martini has drawn from a deep well of the kinds of meaningful people, circumstances and events that we are all bound to encounter at some point of our lives. Martini has admitted that the film is ‘more than a semi-autobiography’, featuring events that occurred in his childhood, including a family friend contracting Lyme disease.

In the film, the aggressive outbreak of Lyme disease spreads anxiousness and paranoia – as it did in real life in 1970s America. After contracting the disease, Charlie slowly drifts away from reality into an unknown and lonely world, triggering obsessive behaviour. This is painful to watch as we witness a man stripped of his pride and exposed to all kinds of humiliations. Hutton captures well the nervous movements and erratic behaviour of a person afflicted by the illness; his performance is compelling and at the same time distressing.

In Lymelife, the outbreak of Lyme disease is also an extended metaphor. Just like epidemics will have corrosive effects if an illness goes untreated, Martini seems to be saying, so rifts will emerge in relationships if the people involved do not confront their problems. In the film, the effects are evident: failed marriages, deep distrust, emotional damage.

Lyme disease is transmitted by a bite from a blood-sucking parasite which normally lives on deer. In a scene in the film, a herd of deer is galloping freely in the woods. They are meant to symbolise the desire of Matt and Adrianna – and countless other children – to run away from their intolerable lives. But then, the woods become more dense, confining the movement of the deer – just like Matt and Adrianna are blocked by the obstacles set up by the circumstances of their families and community.

Lymelife shows the effect that individuals’ pursuit of success and happiness can have on the people around them. Here, it is Mickey’s family that pays the price for his desperate attempts at chasing the American Dream. Behind the idyllic white picket fences of American suburbia lurks a not so black-and-white world that Martini exposes in an engaging and moving way.

Jayde Philips is an intern at spiked.

Watch the trailer for Lymelife here.

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