Credited as a ‘sinister ode to Rosemary’s Baby’ (though, there probably is no other kind of ode to extend to the material), Stewart Thorndike’s directorial debut, Lyle arrives with surprising straight faced self-seriousness (pun intended) as it contends to enlighten us with another dose of the dark one’s endless fascination with collecting human babies. It’s been a grand year for a resurgence in odes and homages to Levin’s horror classic, originally adapted in 1968 and starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. We’ve just experienced an American television miniseries remake directed by Agnieszka Holland, and then there was that found footage garbage, Devil’s Due, a film that only serves to highlight the difference between homage and blatant rip-off. But Thorndike goes for something a little different, removing the terror from the heteronormative realm and examining a similar scenario through the experiences of a lesbian couple. What could easily have spiraled into a campy marathon instead gains a remarkable semblance of engagement from its poker faced resoluteness and a committed central performance from Gaby Hoffman.
Leah (Hoffman) and June (Ingrid Jungermann) have just found their new dream home in Brooklyn, deciding to take the spacious new apartment on what seems a whim, considering the landlord, Karen Trapp (Rebecca Street), is sorta strange and actually lives in the apartment below them. But Leah and June, with their daughter Lyle in tow, already have a second baby on the way, which June seems disappointed to discover will be another girl. While June is off trying to hustle a larger income by discovering an artist that can generate a bonafide hit, Leah is left to unpack in their new place. But things feel off right away. Lyle keeps talking and pointing at things that aren’t there, and the post-menopausal Karen keeps telling all the neighbors she’s pregnant, sporting a fake baby bump and making loud declarations in the hallway. When something tragic happens to Lyle, Leah begins to unravel, and discovers that more sinister powers have brought them to this too-good-to-be true apartment.
Okay, so, what Lyle really has riding against its real shot at being scary is our overfamiliarity with what’s going on. At a slim and trim 65 minutes, Thorndike isn’t messing around with any sort of tangents, either. Sometimes, this works against the success of the material, as corners get clipped once too often, such as the creepy downstairs neighbor, pointedly named Karen Trapp, who, without any semblance of logic, spells out the connection between the baby deaths in the building and how Satan would be irritated if he was promised first born sons only to receive an endless stream of girl children.
An interesting twist, shedding light on the re-appropriated masculine moniker of Lyle (a gender norm not often challenged, reminiscent of Radclyffe’s Hall protagonist in The Well of Loneliness) for Leah and June’s ill-fated first born. Except, if Satan has no qualms about taking the progeny of lesbians, why is he so hung up on this archaic and patriarchal system of primogeniture? But Thorndike isn’t interested in delving beyond the superficial, really, a disappointment considering the retooling. Originally created as a three part web series, with Jill Soloway at one time being mentioned as a creative voice in the mix, it appears to have been calibrated for non-feature running time, which might explain some of its ungainliness when presented as such.
Some of the visual flourishes feel inspired, using split screen Skype for audience ease and even an up close and personal glimpse at a CGI fetus. But then, the incredibly cheap web design of the site that Leah discovers, “Brooklyn Death Houses,” looks incredibly laughable, the type of internet enhanced horror trick one would expect to see in films from well over a decade ago. And, at times, the dialogue gets a little cringe worthy. “Turns out the internet’s not such a great place for me,” complains Leah.
As believable as Hoffman is here, an actress that has a penchant for playing inspired weirdoes (Crystal Fairy) and an ability to convey empathy to surprising effect (Obvious Child), her performance gets shackled into hysterical mode, going past the point of no return into hoarse shrieks, something that wouldn’t be so apparent had there been a little more development with the scenario. But Rebecca Street, who plays the arrestingly strange Karen Trapp, gets a lot of mileage out of her supporting screen time, featured talking loudly in the hallway with leaking nipples and a painfully fake baby bump, awkwardly pretending to be pregnant. She’s a soft-spoken eerie type, recalling the passivity of Mia Farrow in the context at hand.
While Lyle ultimately doesn’t tread any new ground, it does manage to feel like a unique conversation piece, featuring enough strange elements to make it utterly watchable. Lyle is sure to be a unique calling card for director Stewart Thorndike, and it will be interesting to see what she tackles next. Voto 2,5/5. (Nicholas Bell, ioncinema.com)