Monday, May 25, 2009

Lymelife: What Would Han Solo Do?

Last night I saw a commercial for Star Trek claiming that it was "the first great movie of the summer." Now I have great affection for the Star Trek franchise, I did think it was a great movie (see post), and can't really argue with box office results ($193 million domestic as of May 26), but feel compelled to put a word in for one of the legion 98-pound weaklings that are trying to fill seats alongside the ~$160 million intergalactic fantasy.

Lymelife (Derrick Martini, 2008) (Bayers Lake) Like Star Trek, Lymelife tells the story of a teenage boy growing up and trying to find his way to become a man, and is a film that I think easily deserves the adjective "great," along with a few others such as "compelling," "engaging," and "beautifully made" - it was obviously a labour of love for Martini, and held me spellbound.

Jimmy Bartlett (Kieran Culkin) is at that awkward age that is clinically labeled "puberty," but could perhaps be more appropriately titled "chronically awkward" - witness our hero in his tighty whiteys posing in front of a full-length mirror in his bedroom, Han Solo's pistol menacingly in hand as he rehearses what he wishes he could say to the bullies who torment him, or, with scrawny chest puffed out, reeling out "slick" pick up lines to the girl who thinks of him "like a younger brother."

It is scenes such as this one - so true to real, everyday, average life - that make Lymelife such a special movie. We follow the pains and triumphs of an average boy growing up in perfectly rendered 1970s America, replete with turtlenecks, orange everything, and Star Wars collectibles.

We see him humbled at school and virtually ignored at home, where the litany of standard teenage woes is complemented by a womanizing father (Alec Baldwin, excellently cast as a bitter and lonely man) who uses any excuse to escape the realities of marriage and fatherhood, a mother (Jill Hennesy, of Law & Order fame) rendered miserable by the move from downtown New York to the isolated and tick-ridden suburbs, and an older brother (Rory Culkin) driven to join the army to escape his dysfunctional family and the economic malaise strangling the global economy as tensions in the Middle East boil over.

This noxious brew of fear, resentment, and misunderstanding lends Lymelife an overwhelming sense of doom that is perhaps best embodied by the deer tick, which is lurking in the forests surrounding burgeoning suburban America, waiting to infect the masses with Lyme disease. Jimmy's neighbour, Charlie Bragg (played by Timothy Hutton in one of the strongest performances of the film) has been infected, and the resulting near madness has torn his family apart. The Bragg family's situation mirrors what is happening to Jimmy's family in many ways, except that the Braggs are being destroyed by a chance infection, not by a string of questionable personal decisions and explosive personalities that are reeking havoc in the Bartlett household (although Cynthia Nixon's turn as Charlie's wife hints that it was headed nowhere good in any case.)

Indeed, as I have commented so often about other films I have reviewed and loved, Lymelife is not necessarily a pleasant movie to experience. It does not pull its punches or glamorize the world it reflects - instead it forces the viewer to see things as they really are, in the process arousing emotions that are primal, but seldom allowed such almost embarrassing free expression.

Its a lot to take in, but so is life
The natural point of comparison for Lymelife is Ang Lee's masterpiece The Ice Storm. Both films take us inside the minds and hearts of young boys trying to navigate the slow disintegration of their families for reasons that they little understand. Both are also set in the 1970s, and present the time as being so much more bleak and bland than it really could have been - right?

Perhaps the key difference between the two films is that Jimmy is older than The Ice Storm's Paul Hood (a very young Tobey McGuire), which means that the perspective we share is more mature (or at least maturing), and increasingly aware of the subtleties of what is happening - it also means that he is more able to make his own choices. Indeed, Jimmy is a much more active than is Paul, implying that Lymelife is more about its main character than it is about the brooding milieu that surrounds him, as is the case in Ice Storm.

This point is perhaps in no way better illustrated than in the general trajectory taken by each film. Whereas Ice Storm inexorably pushes towards an indescribably tragic conclusion, Lymelife is ultimately warm and even hopeful as Jimmy makes more choices for himself, becoming a man in his own stead, and seems to be escaping the drama that surrounds him. I won't go into details, but suffice to say there is a girl involved - a young lady that I feel guilty for not mentioning as much for her budding beauty as for her strong performance.

Letter to the Editor
If I may editorialize for a moment, Lymelife is a perfect example of the myriad of insightful, artistic, and deeply touching films that are being made every day in countries all over the world - but being shown only in the precious few theaters that are willing to accept less than top dollar by not pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Go see this film - if we don't watch quality cinema, there is no guarantee that cinema artists will continue to find patrons for their creations.

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