Startling performances, searing dialogue and an archaeologist’s sense of late ’70s period detail power the violently funny “Lymelife.” Named, a tad regrettably, for the paranoid condition of wood-tick-fearing middle-class Long Islanders, the second feature written by the Martini brothers, Steven and first-time director Derick, gradually reveals itself as a film about the pressures and consequences of upward mobility and ordinary adolescence. Intense perfs by Rory Culkin and Alec Baldwin are standouts in a movie that brims with vivid supporting turns. Cross-generational marketing ops make “Lymelife” a solid bet for specialty distribs seeking a leaner and meaner “American Beauty.”
The Martinis’ previous screenplay, for “Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire,” showed considerable promise but not the ambitious sort on display here. Coalescing into a representative portrait of pre-Reagan change, the pair’s admittedly autobiographical film, dedicated to their late grandparents, centers on thin, 15-year-old bully magnet Scott (Rory Culkin), whose older, bulkier brother, Jim (Kieran Culkin), prepares to ship off to military duty, and whose longtime crush, Adrianna (Emma Roberts), reluctantly begins to return his timid gaze.
Two sets of parents seem to compete for dysfunctional-behavior prizes: Adrianna’s pill-popping father, Charlie (Timothy Hutton), shoots self-made targets in the woods with a rifle, dressed in suit and tie, while her uptight mother, Melissa (Cynthia Nixon), trysts in a dingy cellar with Scott’s angry-workaholic dad, Mickey (Baldwin).
Mickey’s underappreciated wife, Brenda (Jill Hennessy), duct-tapes her youngest son from head to toe to protect him from Lyme disease. Periodic cutaways to wandering deer and the real or imagined threat of wood ticks — not to mention scenes of believably harsh marital bickering — serve the pic’s point that these frightened, emotionally starved people, kids included, are animals at best.
Despite a few minor missteps, the film is fully imagined in visual and aural terms, teasingly meting out details, keeping us deliberately off-balance as to the exact purpose of its pitch-black humor and withholding clear placement of the time period until a TV news report provides a clue. Initially brisk, the pace slows to a riveting crawl once Scott and Adrianna endeavor to lose their virginity in his action-figure-laden bedroom, and the film wrings every moment of awkwardness out of the encounter. The film is rare for continuing to gain momentum in its final third, escalating toward an explosive rage.
As menacing Mickey, Baldwin makes the most of the script’s roughest lines, delivering them with gravelly sarcasm and precise, Mametian beats. His seethingly elliptical comment to his wife — “You can take the girl outta Queens, am I right?” — is both purely hilarious and revealing of the film’s pungent class critique. Mustachioed Hutton, looking pallid and sweaty from his character’s ambiguous illness and drugs, plays an unforgettable barroom scene in which he relentlessly toys with Baldwin’s philanderer like a cat with a mouse.
As Scott, the younger Culkin has a fabulous “You talkin’ to me?” mirror scene where he impersonates Han Solo — a brilliant evocation of how this late-’70s youth culture fetishized not Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” but its opposite number, “Star Wars.”
Scorsese serves as exec producer here, and his influence is felt in a film that grounds its social observations in tense humor and razor-sharp detail. Film also displays a Scorsesian appreciation of pop, as the period soundtrack ranges from Bob Dylan’s “Walkin’ Down the Line” to Sinatra’s “Cheek to Cheek” and Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” One hopes a buyer would help keep the tunes intact, as the festival print’s end credits, alas, claim “all source music TBD.”