Sometime late in "Lymelife," director Derick Martini cuts to a close-up of a weeping teenager with a shot so tightly framed you can see the glistening curves of the tears clinging to the boy's eyelashes. It's an unexpectedly moving image, a reminder that the close-up, in its ability to bring us near to the poetry of the human face, remains one of cinema's most potent if often squandered techniques. (Television has largely helped us forget just how potent.) Those tears transform the teenage character, Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin): they briefly strip away the clichés encrusting him and offer us a glimpse of the real.
The interlude may not last long, but it confirms that Martini, making his first feature, has enough filmmaking gifts to cut through the formulaic accretions that he and his brother, Steven Martini, have amassed for their screenplay. Those accretions begin with Scott, a Long Island sad sack who lives with his unhappily married parents, Mickey (Alec Baldwin) and Brenda (Jill Hennessy), and pines for the girl next door, Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts). Adrianna comes with her own miserable parents, Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlie (Timothy Hutton), along with a seductive sullen mouth. But there are complications separating him and his dream girl, including one boy with hot wheels and another with fast fists, who turns Scott's timidity into a humiliating public spectacle.
The agonies of adolescence have been served up so many times and in so many different if similar ways on the American screen that it's a wonder there's anything left to say about the subject. The same goes for the suburbs, those oases of collective ennui where faded beauty queens clench their jaws as their men sputter and children flail. "Lymelife" tosses some visual tics (and ticks) into the usual crabgrass, including an already overplayed movie fetish for the 1970s. Set in the last year of that decade, it trots out the requisite glamour don'ts (Brenda's plaid jacket, Melissa's color palette) that telegraph meaning as loudly as a soundtrack that mixes jukebox regulars (Boston, Frank Sinatra) with tinkling songs from Steven Martini's band, the SpaceShip Martini.
The implied idealism of Scott and Adrianna's burgeoning romance makes a painful if overly obvious contrast to the wretched adult relationships. If the differences between new and soured love don't register meaningfully, though, it's because the grown-ups are drawn too broadly and without the nuance -- the expository fights are particularly off key -- that might obscure the narrative schema. The cartoonish Melissa and her foil, Charlie, who may be suffering from psychological damage brought on by Lyme disease, are especially unpersuasive. Despite Hutton's expressive way with silence -- when Charlie sits wordlessly in a darkened room, the actor seems to gather the darkness up inside him -- the character can't escape a fate (and gun) that seems to have been created for the sole purpose of bringing the story to a close.
Despite such floundering, "Lymelife" keeps you hooked, mostly through Hutton, Baldwin and Kieran Culkin as Scott's older brother, Jimmy. (The Culkins are also brothers.) Baldwin makes playing jerks look easy, but what's consistently wonderful about this actor is how he always uncovers something unexpected even in overworked terrain. That's certainly the case in an unnerving scene that finds Mickey baiting Jimmy, egging him on until the son does exactly what Mickey wants and hits his father. Nothing in the film, including the images of a model development filled with tiny plastic people and tiny plastic houses, speaks to the hurt that can come with love as eloquently as the rage that fills -- and empties -- the faces of these men.