Miss Sunshine, plus Lyme disease

Suburban dysfunction, circa 1979, gets an intriguing makeover -- and a great cast -- in the sweet, dark and troubling "Lymelife."

Topics: Beyond the Multiplex, Sex and the City, Movies,

Miss Sunshine, plus Lyme disease

Screen Media Films

Rory Culkin and Emma Roberts in “Lymelife”

As suburban-dysfunction movies go, Derick Martini’s directing debut, “Lymelife,” offers a distinctively acrid variety, closer to, say, “The Ice Storm” than to “Little Miss Sunshine.” Set in Long Island suburbia during the late 1970s — although the time period feels fuzzy in various ways — “Lymelife” offers charm and humor through its young central characters and pathos through its remarkable supporting cast, without pulling punches on its overall atmosphere of autumnal darkness and anomie.

Rory Culkin gives a quiet but compelling performance as Scott, the awkward and indrawn youngest son of a crumbling marriage between real-estate developer Mickey (Alec Baldwin) and prodigiously unhappy Brenda (Jill Hennessy). Scott has flipped head over heels for the girl next door, Adrianna (Emma Roberts), who is alluring and worldly-wise after the fashion of 14-year-old females everywhere. It’s Adrianna who has to inform Scott, in tones of pity and condescension, that his workaholic pop and her mom (Cynthia Nixon, sporting an impressively hideous range of hairstyles and outfits) aren’t simply going over spreadsheets when they work late at the real-estate office. Playing a character who is close to cliché — the pretty but inscrutable teen love object — Roberts, the 18-year-old former star of TV’s “Unfabulous,” feels like a big-time discovery.

Then there’s the largely symbolic role played by Timothy Hutton as Charlie, Adrianna’s cuckolded father, who stumbles through the film in a flulike haze caused by Lyme disease, a disorder that was epidemic, and had no clear treatment, at the time. Charlie’s sweaty, alcoholic, depressive stupor seems to embody the Kierkegaardian spiritual malaise felt by all the film’s adult characters, and the problem with Hutton’s powerful performance is that it threatens to drive the ostensible narrative to the background. (I don’t just say that because Hutton was my high-school classmate.)



Martini and his co-writer brother, Steven, clearly mean for Baldwin’s conflicted, womanizing working-class man made good and Culkin’s Caulfield-esque teen to be the center of the film. They’re both fine, but the angry breakdown and slow, piece-by-piece reconstruction of this father-son bond is the kind of thing we’ve all seen before. It’s the characters around the edges of this pair, from Hennessy’s suffering, stoical Catholic wife to Nixon’s ambitious harridan to a brief but terrific turn by Rory Culkin’s real-life brother, Kieran, as Scott’s charismatic, hair-trigger soldier sibling, who give “Lymelife” its vividness.

Derick Martini was born in 1975, which may explain why several of the film’s cultural and historical references are off. “Lymelife” is clearly set in the fall of 1979; the hostage taking at the United States embassy in Tehran is mentioned, which occurred on Nov. 4 of that year. But Kieran Culkin’s character repeatedly mentions that his military unit may be called up because of the Falklands War, which did not begin until April 1982 (and in which the U.S. was never likely to become involved).

There’s no good reason for such a sloppy error (and it’s not the only one). All that accomplishes is to undermine the credibility of a movie that effortlessly captures its world of puzzled, half-desperate Catholic suburbia. The people in “Lymelife” aren’t the genteel, drunken WASPs of John Cheever’s Westchester County, but white ethnics less than a full generation removed from Brooklyn and Queens who’ve abruptly discovered that the big houses and flat, wooded lots of central Long Island have hollow crawl-spaces deep below, so to speak. The Martini brothers obviously know this terrain intimately, and they display impressive ability with actors and strong potential as storytellers. I hope they Google their historical references next time.

“Lymelife” is now playing in New York, and opens April 17 in Los Angeles and Stamford, Conn.; April 24 in San Francisco and Washington; and May 1 in Chicago, with more cities to follow.

 

 

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>