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Film Review: Lyle (2014)

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SYNOPSIS:

A mother’s grief over the death of her toddler leads to horror.

REVIEW:

It may ruffle feathers, but I’ve never been able to get into “Rosemary’s Baby.”  Though I enjoy Ira Levin‘s novel and appreciate Roman Polanski’s artful interpretation (we’ll pretend this year’s made-for-television debacle never happened), that nagging sensation of being bored to tears still carries over from my first viewing as a child.  I’ve tried to fight it, friends.  Believe me, I’ve tried.

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The fact that our latest offering is so heavily influenced by the 1968 horror chestnut would’ve been a deterrent had it not ended up in my folder for review.  Under different circumstances, I’d have most likely skipped “Lyle” altogether.  Writer/director Stewart Thorndike has fashioned an unapologetic ode to the classic that explores its own interesting avenues along the way.  Despite being squandered by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it runtime of an hour and seconds, this classy thriller rises above mere hero worship. Just barely.

In a fantastic turn, Gaby Hoffmann (HBO’s “Girls” and the upcoming “Veronica Mars” flick) portrays Leah, young mother of a toddler and pregnant with another.  She and girlfriend June (Ingrid Jungermann) are in need of a larger home to accommodate the new arrival, and thankfully able to swing it due to June’s rising success as a music producer.  We are introduced as they’re in the midst of touring a spacious Brooklyn apartment.  Building manager Karen (Rebecca Street, “Warlock: The Armageddon”) dumps a truckload of exposition into our laps during these opening moments, including her own efforts to conceive although she’d clearly missed that boat years ago.  Too impressed by the digs to notice the crazy lady they’ll soon be sharing space with, the couple decides to move in immediately with daughter Lyle.  That’s correct, the titular Lyle is a female tot.  You get that?  “Lyle” makes damn sure you do.

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With June spending long hours in the studio, Leah is left to the unpacking.  Upon scraping wallpaper in the future nursery, she uncovers a teddy bear pattern beneath, though Karen stated no children had ever lived there.  June has also grown distant from her and Lyle, as she laments to mutual friend Threes (Michael Che of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”) during a Skype conversation.  While she persuades him to visit, Lyle wanders off and falls out of an open window to her death.  The presentation of this tragic event is crafty and brilliantly restrained, as it is seen (or not) through the split messenger feeds, Leah’s discovery and cries of anguish occurring off-screen.

Transpiring events get a bit dodgy to discuss without spoiling, picking up seven months later (an in utero sequence indicates the passage of time) with Leah just days from labor.  Her mind has done some fraying over the duration, her suspicions that Lyle’s demise was no accident long since rebuffed as guilt and denial by June.  Investigations into past infant fatalities within the building lead Leah to a tentative friendship with Taylor (Kim Allen, “Army Wives”), a model who lives on the floor below.  Enigmatic as everyone else Leah must endure, Taylor agrees to help her.

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From there, the red herrings and revelations arrive in rapid-fire succession.  At this point “Lyle” suffers under its own ambitions, the brief length only serving as an added hindrance to suspension of disbelief.  Had the production been afforded more breathing room, this whirlwind of information leading up to the finale could have unfolded more organically.  Some earlier insights are either forgotten or ignored in the race to the closing credits.

The character of Karen could have benefitted from further development as well, her quirks (the most bizarre being her “therapy”) never as pivotal to the proceedings as they should be.  It’s a remarkable performance by Street nonetheless, especially during a confrontation between her and Leah at the baby shower.  The cast is excellent across the board, even as all struggle to bring a casual air to the obvious “hint, hint” lines.  Hoffmann puts it all on the table as our protagonist, calling to mind Natalie Portman’s haunting descent into madness in “Black Swan.”  Running the gamut from grieving to vulnerable to batshit crazy, it’s no wonder she’s been getting work since her pig-tailed days in “Field of Dreams” and “Uncle Buck.”

Thorndike’s feature-length (sort of) debut, “Lyle” shows much promise.  Beautifully filmed for essentially a one-location interior shoot, there’s a maturity behind the camera that has become more prevalent (and welcomed) in first-time film makers.  Unfortunately, he displays a distracting tendency to linger regardless of the action, leaving entire conversations completely out-of-frame.  This proved an interesting approach at the onset, but felt more like a director’s gimmick as the movie progressed.

How much is this like “Rosemary’s Baby?”  It’s a lot like it, friends.  With its lumbering fog of dread and mysterious supporting players, “Lyle” could be considered a reimagining of both the story and Polanski’s vision.   Whereas the former relied almost entirely upon atmosphere, the latter contemplates loss, love and dedication to help propel its narrative.

It has lofty aspirations, this one.  More often than not, “Lyle” achieves them.  See it as a companion piece to you-know-what.

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