Come fly with me, let’s float down to Peru.
In lama land, there’s a one-man band
And he’ll toot his flute for you.
— Frank Sinatra, “Come Fly with Me”
As metaphors go, Lyme disease is a good one. Best known for its carrier (ticks), the infection emerged most strikingly in New England during the 1970s, and its precise causes and surefire cures remain elusive. Afflicted during a deer-hunting excursion, Charlie (Timothy Hutton) exhibits classic symptoms: he’s perpetually exhausted, depressed, and slow-thinking. His joints ache, he can’t work, his wife is angry, believing he is “psychosomatic.”
Indeed, when Charlie first appears in Lymelife, he looks terrible: his hair is mussed, his clothes rumpled, his face sweaty. Aiming his rifle at a homemade deer-head target he’s pinned to a tree near his Long Island home, he may be imagining a sort of revenge — the infection, a radio-talk-show doctor helpfully explains at film’s start, “technically stems from the blood of the deer.” Perhaps he’s hoping to recapture his recent past: sick for a year now, Charlie is understandably frustrated by the lack of progress in his treatment, and the collapse of his life because of it. Or maybe he’s looking to restock the frozen venison he keeps in his basement locker — carefully labeled and uneaten.
No matter his motivation, Charlie’s appearance seems immediately threatening to his neighbor, 15-year-old Scott (Rory Culkin), who happens to be headed through the woods on his way home. The kid is startled by the shot, of course, just as Charlie is horrified to see Scott: “I told you not to come around here! That could have been your head.” He smacks the side of Scott’s head for emphasis. “Accidents happen, don’t you understand that?”
Scott appreciates that Charlie feels like a walking accident, an example to everyone around him. Or at least his mom does: fearful that her youngest son might also fall prey to a random tick bite, Brenda (Jill Hennessy) duct-tapes his sleeves and pants legs before she’ll let him walk through the woods. Her anxiety irritates her husband Mickey (Alec Baldwin), who happened to be sitting next to Charlie in the woods on that fateful day (and is now the object of seemingly irrational but understandable resentment on Charlie’s part). As Mickey and Brenda argue loudly over this year’s deer hunting, Scott sits outside on the stoop, forlorn and helpless. Mm stands her ground, and dad insists, “I’m not gonna be the one that lets him down.”
In fact, he is already letting Scott down, though the boy hasn’t quite grasped how. Lymelife goes on to track their coming to terms, Scott’s needs and his father’s betrayals exposed (for one thing. he’s having an affair with Charlie’s angry wife, Melissa [Cynthia Nixon]). Scott’s is another suburban coming-of-age story, helped along by a visit from his older brother Jimmy (Kieran Culkin). A soldier about to be shipped to the Falklands (it’s 1979), he harbors longtime rage at Mickey and feels tremendous frustration at his inability to protect his mother or brother. Just so, when he learns a high school bully has smashed in Scott’s face, Jimmy roars right over to said bully’s house in his muscle car, and proceeds to beat him down royally, Scott watching with a mix of awe, fear, and jealousy. The brothers agree to tell Brenda Scott has only walked into a door.
The schematic other end of Scott’s emotional spectrum is embodied by Charlie and Melissa’s daughter Adrianna (Emma Roberts). As he sees her, standing by the railroad tracks (next to a conveniently located “Danger” sign), Scott is nearly dumbstruck, desperate for her interest, yet afraid of it as well. For one thing, Adrianna seems endlessly complicated, sad about her dad (“Ever since he got sick, he spends more time with the stupid dead deer [in the freezer] than he does with us”) and enthrallingly enigmatic (“They say that no matter where you are on Long Island, you can always hear the train, it’s never far enough away”). Unavoidably smitten, Scott practices asking her out, or at pretending he’s got something cool to say to say. Posing before his bedroom mirror, Scott is surrounded by Star Wars action figures and a Han Solo poster; even if his hair looks a little like his hero’s, Scott can’t begin to approximate the requisite swagger or roguish charm. Instead, he sputters, “You know you want this, don’t lie.” The cool-guy performance ends as soon as his mom calls him to dinner.
Written by director Derick Martini and his brother Steven, Lymelife makes liberal use of such imagery, not to mention an overbearing period soundtrack (usually diegetic, on radios and background dance music) as well as that repeatedly referenced inexplicable infection. “Why me?” moans Melissa. She’d rather he was undone by something regular, “a bus, a robbery, an accident,” and can only fume at the mystery of Lyme disease. Mickey is startled to hear her complain of her misfortune, noting that she is not, in fact, the one infected.
Melissa is only the least self-conscious of the many self-obsessing adults in Lymelife. At first mad at his mother’s over-protectiveness and embarrassed when she sunbathes on their shingled roof, Scott is more profoundly disturbed by his father’s duplicity, his pretend “American Dream” (more metaphors pile up in his successful real estate career and his construction of a big new house for a family that is disintegrating even as he moves in boxes of pictures and bedding). As Brenda finds a way to save herself, her self-realizations are left off-screen, but her sudden shift in affect becomes a manifestation of Scott’s growing up. That she, Melissa, and Adrianna serve such allusive and metaphorical purpose is not surprising. But still, it’s disappointing.