After reading a brief summary of Lymelife, we had our doubts: Oh, no. Please, not another coming of age story about suburban families who are almost as dysfunctional as ours. While Juno/Waitress/Little Miss Sunshine introduced many to the world of independent film, they felt incredibly constructed. The New York Times points out this frequented formula in a Juno review: “The passive-aggressive pseudo-folk songs, the self-consciously clever dialogue, the generic, instantly mockable suburban setting — if you can find Sundance on a map, you’ll swear you’ve been here before.”
Derick Martini’s Lymelife follows this indie-success format in terms of the storyline, but manages to feel fresh — perhaps because it is in large inspired by his own childhood with older brother (and composer/co-screenwriter) Steven. Or maybe it was the intense preparation process. It took nearly 8 years to get made before shooting began early last year: “I submitted the script to the Sundance Filmmaker’s Lab — they choose five or six a year,” he explains over the phone. “You’re invited to Utah and you shoot six or seven scenes over the course of the summer. It’s very experimental. You don’t have a production designer, or someone doing wardrobe. You’ve got a camera operator who’s shooting on digital, and a handful of actors. And advisers like Robert Redford — directors of that stature.
“They’re shadowing you, following you through the rehearsal process. They give you notes and you’re being watched all the time, scrutinized. For a young director (I was around 24 at the time) it’s great. You get to make mistakes and they encourage you to take risks and chances. You fail or succeed, but you learn as much from the failures. Once you edit the footage, they critique the scenes. That’s when the learning curve really hits. You learn to shoot better angles, make better choices. Even though we had made a movie before — Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire — we weren’t directing it. You come out of an experience like that with so much more confidence.”
Besides their experience at the Filmmaker’s Lab, also aiding the Martini brothers is a stellar cast — Alec Baldwin, Cynthia Nixon, Kieran and Rory Culkin, Emma Roberts, Jill Hennessy, and Timothy Hutton — who deliver stellar, realistic performances. “After Smiling Fish we were working as writers for hire in the industry, and Lymelife was something I had written on the side,” Derick explains. “I wouldn’t let go of it, or give it to another director or studio. I just held on to it for dear life. I knew when I was ready to direct a film, this would be it. When I wrote it, I thought it was funny, but I have a dark sense of humor. Once I got in with the actors, the thing that made it work was their willingness not say the words exactly as they were written. They found the humor in the story by being in the moment and creating genuine moments between the characters. That’s like capturing lightning in a bottle — when you have great actors, who can take what’s on the page and make it better.”
Set in the late ’70s in Long Island, Lymelife tells the story of two average, dysfunctional families. Here’s the kicker: an epidemic of Lyme disease has all the L.I. families in a tizzy. Charlie Bragg (Timothy Hutton) suffers from the mysterious disease, and spends his days hidden in the basement drawing sketches of deer or running around in the forest with his rifle. His wife Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) thinks he’s in the city in search of work. Their neighbors, real estate developer Mickey Bartlett (Alex Baldwin) and his wife Brenda (Jill Hennessy) are on the verge of divorce. A die hard Queens girl, Brenda resents the fact that she had to leave her beloved nabe for her husband’s career. Their constantly bullied teenage son, Scott (Rory Culkin) feels the affects of their strained relationship most.
The families are intertwined in a few ways: Melissa takes a job from Mickey and an affair ignites. Scott crushes on the Bragg’s daughter, Adrianna (Emma Roberts), who sticks up for him when he’s bullied. Scott’s older bro Jimmy (Kieran Culkin) spices things up when he visits from the army, proving that he ran away to get away from his mess of a family. Jimmy confronts his father’s ways, looks out for his younger brother, and more importantly, makes him open his eyes about their flawed parents.
Lymelife is dedicated to the Martini’s grandparents, who in a large part are responsible for their shared interest in film. “My grandfather is the one who got me into films,” Derick says. “He wasn’t a filmmaker; he drove a cab most of his life. But every Saturday and Sunday my grandparents would come over from Queens and it was movie day with my grandpa. My grandma would cook, and pop in and out. He would show me films that at a very young age I probably shouldn’t have been watching. So until I was 16, I was inundated with the work of directors like Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Howard Hawks, and John Huston. Most of it went over my head, but later in my 20s I revisited these films and I was truly inspired.”
Would his grandfather have found Lymelife funny? “Maybe. Let me think about that. I know my grandmother would have found it funny. But he would have taken it very seriously. It was always a film class with him. I think he would have definitely enjoyed it, but he would also have had some comments and criticisms for me. And he would have picked up on some shots I borrowed from Truffaut.”
Lymelife kicks off the 14th Annual Gen Art Film Festival tonight at 7:30 p.m. It opens in limited release on April 8.
Related post: Chronic Flicks: Lymelife Out Next Month