As the late Seventies shift into the Eighties, sensitive Long Island teenager Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin) is undergoing his own changes along with the landscape around him. His mother Brenda (Jill Hennessy) keeps house while his father Mickey (Alec Baldwin) spends long hours away selling homes to others, and older brother Jimmy (Rory's actual brother Kieran Culkin) visits only when on furlough from military service.
Scott will gradually see the cracks in his family's supposed happiness, even as he experiences love's growing pains with Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts), the slightly older, more confident girl next door. Whose neurotic mother Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) just happens to be conducting a semi-open affair with Mickey while her own husband Charlie (Timothy Hutton) is becoming lost to Lyme disease.
If you have seen, say, The Ice Storm (1997), Imaginary Heroes (2004), The Squid and the Whale (2005) or Adventureland (2009), then it is unlikely that much in the narrative of Derick Martini's Lymelife will come as a great surprise. With its suburban setting, its awkward coming-of-age themes, its Oedipal conflicts, its subversions of the American dream, its nostalgia-tinged period details, and the fact that, as Martini freely admits, it is "more than semi-autobiographical", this is an indie flick par excellence, drawn from a script (by Martini and his brother Steven) that was developed in that heartland of all things independent, the filmmaker's lab at Sundance.
In some areas the script could have used a little more developing. The sequence in which Melissa and Mickey have sex in the games room, oblivious to the fact that Charlie is home watching them from the adjacent cellar while Scott and Adriana are upstairs sharing a secret spliff, depends upon farce-like coincidences that seem out of kilter with the dryer observational humour to be found elsewhere in the film.
Similarly, the fact that Scott loses his virginity on the selfsame day as his Catholic Confirmation - "the actual day", as Mickey spells out, "you become a man" - seems unnecessarily contrived, not to mention overstated; and someone ought to have pointed out to the brothers Martini that the Falklands War to which Jimmy's unit is supposedly being mobilised in fact took place some two years after the film's events, and without any actual involvement of US Forces.
Line by line, however, the Martinis' dialogue zings with both subtlety and plausibility, while their flawed, fragile characters are brought to unflinching life by a highly committed ensemble cast. The montages of new suburban homes - both real and model - that regularly punctuate these family scenes serve to locate the dramas of the Bartletts and the Braggs within the upwardly-mobile sterility of the approaching Eighties.
All this makes Lymelife a film of genuine quality, casting a light that, though hardly original, is still bright, on the emptiness of domestic life, the arbitrariness of fate, and the inevitability of change.