"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist", "Lymelife": Coming-of-Age Movies By Nick Roddick

in 33rd Toronto International Film Festival

by Nick Roddick

No film festival provides a better guide to trends in mainstream and off-mainstream movie-making than Toronto. And what Toronto has revealed two years in a row is a renaissance in American coming-of-age films — a genre that has, in the past, offered occasional greatness (Meet Me in St. Louis, Rebel Without a Cause) and a number of solid pleasures such as the early films of John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink).

Last year’s hit was Juno, a funny but sharp-edged portrait of a youth culture that has become almost entirely detached from the adult world, leading sometimes to tragedy but just as often — as here — to empowerment. This year’s festival unveiled Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, directed by Peter Sollett, whose first feature, Raising Victor Vargas, was a festival favourite in 2002-3. Sollett’s new film seems in many ways a companion piece to Juno, not least because both films have the same male lead in Michael Cera, a young actor who made his name in the TV series Arrested Development and has come to embody the ‘geek chic’ which is proving one of the richest seams in contemporary youth culture.

But what really distinguishes Nick and Norah is its sweetly good-natured view of humanity even as its youthful characters navigate the dangerous waters of drug culture, peer pressure, sexual awakening, homophobia and dysfunctional families. Almost as though in reaction to the saccharine youth movies of the 1950s and 1960s, Juno and Nick and Norah make a compelling argument for the strength that is to be found in confronting issues, in coming to terms with a deeply flawed world, rather than in pulling up the drawbridge and ‘just saying no’.

A more serious and compelling version of the same theme lies behind Lymelife, joint winner of the Toronto FIPRESCI Award this year. Taking its title from a debilitating disease caught from ticks, the film is set on Long Island during the 1970s and focuses on two families: the Bartletts and the Braggs. Mickey Bartlett (Alec Baldwin, who also produced) and his wife, Brenda (Jill Hennessy), moved to the suburbs from Queens some time ago, barely speak but are poised to move on up the chain into a hypermodern house which Mickey, a successful real estate developer, had built. They have two sons: 15-year-old high-school student Scott and somewhat older Jimmy, who is in the army (played by real-life brothers Rory and Kieran Culkin).

The Braggs are less prosperous. Charlie (Timothy Hutton) has Lyme disease, which he describes as sometimes like a minor cold, other times like your head being on fire. Unable to cope, he spends his days in the basement while his wife, Melissa (Cynthia Nixon from Desperate Housewives), works for Mickey, with whom she eventually starts an affair. Scott is in love with the Braggs’ daughter, Adrianna (Emma Roberts), but is too shy and insecure to tell her.

First-time director Derick Martini, working from a screenplay co-written with his brother, Steven, and with Martin Scorsese as executive producer, has assembled a very strong cast, with Baldwin especially good. The budget was tight, the shoot short, yet Martini seems to have found the restraints energising rather than constricting.

Above all, he manages to reinvent the familiar tropes of the coming-of-age movie, making Lymelife a classic example of a familiar genre being opened up and re-examined while continuing to provide the familiar coming-of-age landmarks. Lymelife uses genre, as so many great Hollywood directors have used it in the past, as a format which proves the film-maker with an enhanced freedom rather than placing him in a straitjacket.