'Dear Lemon Lima'

"Juno"-meets-"Napoleon" hybrid overtly cribs from Fox Searchlight's playbook

Half-Eskimo high schooler Vanessa Lemor, the protagonist of “Dear Lemon Lima,” is probably too old to be doodling rainbows and bunnies that poop pastel hearts, though director Suzi Yoonessi believes there’s nothing sadder than outgrowing childhood. Here, the “Me and You and Everyone We Know” producer-turned-helmer raids her own adolescent diary to garnish an otherwise familiar misfit teen comedy with endearing personal touches. Otherwise, from its hand-drawn opening credits to the climactic dance-off before an auditorium of peers, this “Juno”-meets-”Napoleon Dynamite” hybrid overtly cribs from Fox Searchlight’s playbook. But without Searchlight behind it, even sleeper status could be a stretch.

Chief among this cutie-patootie confection’s novelties are its Fairbanks, Alaska, setting (though Seattle doubles for Fairbanks on film) and the unique heritage of its central character. Raised by a single mom, Vanessa (part-Yup’ik actress Savanah Wiltfong) hardly identifies with her Eskimo dad’s side of the family, which makes her selection as the Nichols Academy’s annual diversity-minded “Molly Hootch Scholar” all the more awkward. Still, Vanessa is glad to be taking classes with her childhood playmate and ongoing puppy-love crush, Philip Georgey (Shayne Topp).

Philip, on the other hand, is embarrassed by Vanessa’s adolescent antics and publicly gives her the cold shoulder. She’s heartbroken, turning to imaginary friend Lemon Lima (to whom she addresses all her diary entries) for advice. No answer comes, of course, though her pleas prove she can actually be quite poignant when spared the scrutiny of her peers — which, in helmer Yoonessi’s view, seems to be the secret to happiness: not caring what other people think.

As it is, school is hard on Vanessa, especially gym class, and her general clumsiness gets her demoted to the weight room with all the losers, among whom Vanessa finds her true soulmates. Vanessa recruits her fellow outcasts to join “Team Fubar” and compete in the school’s annual Snowstorm Survivor tournament. The contest is a big deal on campus, and Vanessa convinces herself victory would surely win back Philip’s affections. Drawn from a real-life series of native games, which include such events as the ear pull and two-man carry, the games significantly raise the pic’s quirky quotient.

There’s almost nowhere for such a plot to go that audiences haven’t seen countless times before, and one especially shameless emotional twist is so ill-executed that Yoonessi risks losing the goodwill her warm and witty script has earned up to that point. But the helmer’s approach is more about sensibility than story.

Yoonessi — and to a lesser extent, her heroine – embellishes Vanessa’s world with artsy-craftsy touches. From the cupcake-themed mural at school to the recurring “iloveyou” graffiti tag seen all over town, the pic has an aesthetic sweet tooth perfectly suited to those who revel in kooky sweaters and self-conscious set decoration. Sarah Levy’s beautiful compositions and super-lush lensing bring a candy-colored sheen to Yoonessi’s universe, where wilderness and suburban life meet, and semi-innocent nostalgia commingles with the characters’ often sarcastic contemporary sensibilities. But such self-conscious embellishments can’t disguise the degree to which the director identifies with her main character, which just might be the magic ingredient that makes everything gel.

Even though the roles amount to little more than types, Yoonessi works wonders with her young cast. The adult thesping is more uneven: Melissa Leo awkwardly plays Hercules’ mother like some sort of Amish Nazi, while character actress Beth Grant nearly steals the show as Alaska’s most enthusiastic high school principal.

Girly songs and Sasha Gordon’s inspired music-box-and-strings score keep the pic’s head in the clouds.

Dear Lemon Lima,

Production

A Sanguine Films presentation. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Melissa Lee CQ, Jonako Donley. Directed, written by Suzi Yoonessi.

Crew

Camera (color, 35mm-to-HD, widescreen), Sarah Levy; editors, Mara Farrington, Matt Linnell; music, Sasha Gordon; production designer, Kay Lee; art director, Rena Bussinger; costume designer, Joy Andrews; sound, Adam Powers; visual effects supervisor, Catherine Tate; assistant director, Tony Becerra; casting, Sunday Boling, Meg Morman. Reviewed at the Landmark, Los Angeles, June 10, 2009. (In Los Angeles Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Savanah Wiltfong, Shayne Topp, Zane Huett, Elaine Hendrix, Eleanor Hutchins, Meaghan Jette Martin, Vanessa Marano, Melissa Leo, Beth Grant.

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