Bereft after the end of her relationship with an older woman, Karen (Otmara Marrero) heads to her ex’s vacant lakeside cabin in the woods to recuperate. Of course, she hasn’t exactly been invited, so she has to break a window to climb inside, cutting her hand in the process. Before long, she meets Lana (Sydney Sweeney), a mysterious young blonde woman lurking on the property. She says she’s looking for her dog. Karen is entranced.
Thus begins Clementine, director Lara Jean Gallagher’s gorgeous debut drama about longing, youth, and slippery notions of truth and lies. The film (available in Virtual Cinemas from Friday May 8th) is languorously paced, full of longing looks, hesitant touches, and afternoons spent relaxing by the lake. It’s about the moment before the kiss, that sharp intake of breath when you realize you’re being looked at the same way you are looking. It’s about feeling like you’re drowning and reaching up for a hand, and finding one, even though it may not be one that really saves you. And then, unfortunately, it’s about what happens when things go sour, when the fruit rots, when the bird snatches the clementine right out of your hand, and the film makes some choices that I found difficult to get on board with.
First things first though, the film looks phenomenal. Set somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, close enough that the proximity to Los Angeles feels like an achievable glittering daydream for the idealistic Lana, the film is full of sweeping, verdant shots of towering, rustling trees and the beautiful, sparkling lake. It creates an intoxicating, dreamlike atmosphere, and it’s easy to see why Karen has chosen this location as an escape from her anguish over her breakup. It reminds her of her ex, of course, but it also seems to exist outside of time, removed enough from her real life and her regular responsibilities that she can get lost for a while in the heady rush of whatever this new friendship might turn out to be. Lana, too, is using the remote cabin as an escape, but from what isn’t clear until the last act of the film. Instead, for most of the runtime she comes and goes, melting back into the woods like a forest spirit only to reemerge and seduce Karen into yet another day spent among the trees.
Both of the central performances are great. Otmarra Marrero does a good job conveying the depths of Karen’s despair as well as her hesitation to let her friendship with the alluring Lana become anything more. For the most part, she does a lot of looking and reacting rather than anything too showy, but it’s exactly right for the role. Her more measured approach contrasts very well opposite Sydney Sweeney, a startlingly naturalistic actress who effortlessly embodies the carefree-yet-secretly-guarded, damaged youths she plays here and in HBO’s Euphoria. She conveys the world-weariness of a girl who has seen too much but still looks at the world with wide-eyed optimism, staunchly choosing to believe in the fantasy of a future where she can be anyone she wants to be even as her past tries to hold her back. One monologue towards the end, as Lana finally opens up to Karen and relates a traumatic experience, is particularly stunning; her eyes well up with tears and her mask is finally dropped, and she’s the perfect, crushing picture of innocence corrupted.
Unfortunately, my biggest problem with Clementine is where story goes in the final act. Without giving too much away, a lot of LGBTQ films of the past couple of years have received somewhat of a backlash for dealing with relationships that have significant age gaps. Call Me By Your Name dealt with this, as did the announcement of Ammonite, an upcoming film by God’s Own Country director Francis Lee where Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet play lovers.
I won’t give away the exact twist in Clementine, but the end of the film set me on edge. That’s the point, I guess, in grappling with difficult material, but Clementine tries to throw one too many traumatic wrinkles in the Karen/Lana relationship, and it just left me feeling uncomfortable about the whole film I’d just witnessed. There could have been ways to make this movie just as powerful, just as meditative and insightful about loss, innocence, and longing. Instead, it feels like needless provocation rather than a crucial narrative choice.
It’s a shame, because so much about the rest of the movie is really, really solid. If anything, it leaves me wanting more from everyone involved…with hopefully a less needlessly-provocative storyline next time.
By Eric Langberg
Clementine opens in Virtual Cinemas Everywhere on Friday May 8th.