Lyme disease ' that wretched attack on the bloodstream carried by ticks ' is one of the more annoying afflictions. Tests to confirm the disease are unreliable and produce some of the highest numbers of false positives and negatives in medicine. It's known as an imitator because its symptoms are essentially flu-like and vague. As frustrating as that can be for its victims, the effect on the victim's loved ones is a grab bag of guilt, hostility and reluctant sympathy, because honestly, who can be sure it's the real deal in the first place?
Lymelife, from newbie writer-director Derick Martini, works in the same way: an imitation of a brand of dysfunction-in-the-suburbs films like Harold and Maude and American Beauty that grew tired before being revived with Little Miss Sunshine. It mimics those films' affected settings, their disturbed black sheep and their statement-shock endings without possessing any identity of its own.
Set in the early '80s, the film features high-school kids Scott Bartlett (the always interesting Rory Culkin) and Adrianna Bragg (Nickelodeon's Emma Roberts) who have been neighbors and buds their whole lives. We come in near the beginning of their post-pubescent ballet of unspoken affection. Scott's father, wannabe real-estate mogul Mickey (an awkward Alec Baldwin) is having an affair with Adrianna's 'I will sell this house todayâ?� mother, whose husband (Timothy Hutton) spends all day in the basement feeling sorry for himself because he has Lyme disease. When Scott's brother, Jimmy (Rory Culkin's real-life brother Kieran) comes home from boot camp awaiting deployment to the Falklands War (a bit of historical inaccuracy that can be chalked up to Martini being only 7 years old when it occurred), his brash, newly acquired alpha status triggers an outing of buried secrets that threatens both families.
All the markers of quirky drama are here: the mysterious illness, the looming threat of violence and the tender loss of virginity (one of the few scenes handled just right). But it all lies limp onscreen, and I had to wonder if the problem is that these actors are far too aware of exactly what genre they've been enlisted to copy. Kieran Culkin was fantastic in the similar, better Igby Goes Down. Likewise Rory vis-à-vis 2005's The Chumscrubber, Baldwin in Running With Scissors and as the voice of dysfunction in The Royal Tenenbaums, and Hutton in Ordinary People. It's the equivalent of sending in the Dysfunctional Dream Team to run junior varsity drills; sure, they could use the warm-up, but they don't want to pull a hamstring doing it.
As it jogs toward its climax, Lymelife fails to ratchet up the tension by turning the screws of the plot. Instead, Martini opts for showy and increasingly shrill yelling matches, shoving standoffs and confessions that seem to bubble up because it's near the end of the film and some ribbons need tying. If the film insists on Lyme as its choice of disease (and poetic hook), it may want to check those results again.