The old adage about making sour fruit into sweet refreshment is implicit in the title of Romanian writer-director Ioana Uricaru’s promising first feature “Lemonade.” Martha Stewart herself, however, would be stumped by the wizened, acrid lemons our hapless heroine is handed in this heart-pinching hard-luck story from America’s green card-seeking margins. Bearing the tersely empathetic, socially conscious stamp of producer Cristian Mungiu, albeit with less of his pristine formal finesse, Uricaru’s tough study of a young migrant caretaker marrying hastily to secure the American Dream for herself and her young son is as damning of U.S. institutional corruption as Mungiu’s own work has been of Romanian authorities. Though Uricaru permits a dash of cockeyed hope into proceedings, an upright spine of against-the-system anger keeps “Lemonade” suitably tart throughout.
Mungiu’s prestigious imprimatur should help garner significant interest in “Lemonade” on the festival circuit following its Berlinale premiere, with select arthouse distribution for the American-set, predominantly English-language film a possibility in multiple territories. Following up on the striking segment she directed for 2009’s Mungiu-produced portmanteau “Tales from the Golden Age,” Uricaru’s film seems a calling card for bigger, bolder features to come, whether produced at home or abroad.
The director drew on her own experiences as a Romanian immigrant in America for her lean but tightly plotted screenplay, co-written with Tatiana Ionascu, and the resulting film seethes with the conviction of lived experience — even if “Lemonade’s” heroine Mara (Malina Manovici) faces far grimmer prospects. We meet her in the midst of her processing by U.S. immigration authorities, as she’s medically examined and vaccinated without consultation: a demeaning experience that she shrugs off as being part of the system. Her older American husband Daniel (Dylan Scott Smith) is furious on her behalf, but Uricaru and Mara both know that such outrage is an insider’s privilege: She’s just trying to keep her head down and get through the machine.
Swiftly we piece together the backstory: She and Daniel are newlyweds, having met mere months before when she was assigned as his caretaker after he suffered a work-related injury. The marriage came just as her six-month U.S. visa was set to expire; all evidence may point to it being one of convenience, but “Lemonade” isn’t at all clear-cut on the nature of Mara and Daniel’s relationship. Either way, she’s determined to make it work for the sake of her eight-year-old son Dragos (a fine, subtly wary Milan Hurduc), who arrives in America unaware that his mother has no intention of returning home; the dearth of economic opportunities for women like Mara in Romania go unspoken in “Lemonade,” but are all too clear.
Yet present-day America is far from a land of uncompromised milk and honey, as initially benevolent but misogynistic immigration officer Moji (Steve Bacic) binds her into a no-win situation; abuse of power is the order of the day in a film that topically tackles both sexual exploitation and xenophobia in the country’s conservative patriarchy. Uricaru’s film doesn’t push its political buttons lightly, and her characterization risks being over-schematic to underline an already potent point. Still, “Lemonade” remains effective and agitating precisely where it needs to be, while the subtleties of Manovici’s performance, clouding her ingenue-like appearance with flashes of hard-lived savvy, keep the drama on edge.
Visually, “Lemonade” lacks the interior scope and compositional sharpness associated with Romania’s finest, though that may be deliberate: Uricaru and DP Friede Clausz paint their unspecified corner of Wherever, America in wan, faded hues and gray-marl shadows, robbing its bleak collage of highways, motels and government waiting rooms of any distinguishing features to an unwelcome outsider. Perhaps it’s only once you get the green card that any color floods into the picture. Mara, for her part, is patiently willing to bide her time in the murk. To borrow a lyric from “Lemonade’s” Beyoncé-driven namesake: “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”