There's a teen "sex scene" in [movie id="408390"]"Lymelife"[/movie] that shows us nothing in the way of sex, but nevertheless captures the sweet fumbling of first love in all of its awkward physical wonder. Everything is played out on the faces of the actors, [movieperson id="246537"]Rory Culkin[/movieperson] and [movieperson id="249517"]Emma Roberts[/movieperson], who give striking, beyond-their-years performances in a movie that's already distinguished by a very high-caliber cast. Culkin, with his winsome droop, is especially adept at bringing to life a character whose emotions are for the most part submerged. And Roberts — best-known till now for such tweenage films as "Nancy Drew" and "Aquamarine" — here blossoms into something approaching stardom.
The time is 1979; the place, a woodsy suburb on Long Island, New York. Culkin is Scott Bartlett, a glum 15-year-old who divides his life between dodging bullies at school and trying not to think too hard about the collapse of his parents' marriage at home. Roberts plays Scott's 16-year-old schoolmate, Adrianna Bragg, who knows more about that latter subject than Scott does — it's her mother, Melissa (Cynthia Nixon), whose affair with Scott's father, Mickey (Alec Baldwin), is tearing the Bartlett family apart. ("Scott," she patiently explains, "your dad is f---ing my mom.")
The movie is about love in all of its wayward unpredictability. Mickey, a real-estate hotshot, feels that a man's duty in life is to provide an ever-snazzier lifestyle for his family — what more could they want? He's baffled by the insistence of his wife, Brenda (Jill Hennessy), on something more than that. (He can't understand her irritation when he shows her the coldly moderne new home he's built for them without consulting her.) Melissa insists that she would stick with her husband, Charlie (a haggard Timothy Hutton), through anything — except the Lyme disease, caught from a woodland tick, that's turning him into a sick, sweaty wreck. Scott, whose older brother Jimmy (played by Culkin's own brother, Kieran — a sharp casting choice) has already fled the imploding Bartlett home, is adrift until he manages to bring himself to the attention of Adrianna. She's a school beauty who hangs with the cool kids, but has a mind of her own: "If you were two, three years older," she tells Scott, sizing him up, "I'd go out with you." More self-possessed than Scott, she accepts their mutual domestic chaos for what it is — a mess — and she's ready to move on.
The movie is a procession of wonderfully well-structured scenes (Scott and Adrianna's show-and-tell colloquy in a church confessional is an especially charming conception) and emotionally concentrated shots (the sight of Brenda happily perched with a bottle of wine on the roof of her now Mickey-less house says all we need to know about finally cutting loose). And the first-time director, theater veteran Derek Martini, working from a script he wrote with his brother Steven (who also composed the score), manages to suggest the period without pounding it home. There are some '70s hits on the soundtrack by Elton John and Bad Company (and, in a complex barroom dancing scene, one of the most exhilarating uses ever of Boston's "More Than a Feeling"); but the older characters of course carry around much earlier sounds in their heads, and so we also hear flourishes of everything from Frank Sinatra to 1950s doowop and '60s soul.
"Lymelife" has some of the eccentric narrative invention of movies like "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine," but less of those films' polished sentiment and inherent adorability. And the picture's surprisingly ambiguous conclusion seems just right for a story in which all the characters are feeling their way toward they know not exactly what. The movie is an indie jewel; watch it shine.
Check out everything we've got on "Lymelife."
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.