Writer-director Lara Jean Gallagher’s “Clementine” resides willfully (and more often than not, skillfully) in the spaces between loss and desire, anger and reckoning, trust and suspicion, often to unnerving effect. A viewer would be right to wonder, is this visually canny story of a young woman who heads to her ex-lover’s empty lake house a coming-of-age meditation or a psychosexual thriller? Breakup drama or simmering horror flick outing?
Gallagher rebuffs easy answers in “Clementine,” which had its premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and opens May 8 on virtual screens thanks to the nimble maneuvering of distributor Oscilloscope Pictures.
Karen (Otmara Marrero) leaves Los Angeles and heads into the woods — yes, figuratively, too — of Oregon after a thwarted attempt to get their dog from her lover’s home. We don’t see this ex, who goes by D, so much as hear her. She’s the voice at the start of the film, telling Karen (in lovely closeup) that she knows Karen will break her heart. To which the film offers a quick “Hah!” It’s D who sent Karen packing.
She’s not a render-of-garments, gnasher-of-teeth kind of jilted ex. And Otmara Marrero portrays her with a quiet that speaks of hurt but also hints at an investigative bewilderment. Karen’s escape from D and L.A. has the potential for self-reckoning and liberation. She homes in on the lake house to suss the authentic from the falsely promised in her and D’s relationship. And let’s be honest, to take advantage of the lovely Walden-esque seclusion.
In short order, her solitude is upended by Lana — a beguiling young woman — and the somewhat more intrusive arrival of Beau, the property’s handyman. After all, Karen’s not supposed to be there.
The first time Karen sees Lana may conjure images of “Lolita.” That wouldn’t be far off. She’s sunbathing on a pier and eating sections from a clementine. Although Karen herself looks to be in her late twenties, issues of age-appropriate liaisons flow throughout “Clementine.” Do the rules of engagement shift when it’s two women? Before we ever see her, we know D (Sonya Walger) is decidedly older than Karen; it’s confirmed by her house, her vintage Benz, her Pacific Northwest getaway, her career as a working artist and yes, her rather superior voice on the phone.
As Lana, Sydney Sweeney deftly shape-shifts from late teen to younger — too young? — often within the same scene. Karen trusts (because she wants to?), then doubts (because it’s wise to) Lana’s claim to be 19. What does it say about Karen’s romantic interest if Lana isn’t what – or who – she says she is? A #MeToo-ish subplot, concerning Lana’s plans to go to L.A. to become an actress, adds to the ethical mire.
The drama of Karen and Lana’s attraction gives way to something more unsettling once Beau begins hanging around. Will Brittain does a nice job of confusing matters: Beau is comfortable in his skin and a little inscrutable. That Lana and Beau appear to know each other only cranks the tension.
Gallagher finds ready compatriots in tweaking and then downshifting the film’s moods. Katy Jarzebowski’s spare, progressively ominous score whets the edges. Cinematographer Andres Karu gently teases horror flick gestures — e.g. a shot from directly behind a character — but also captures the natural world with devotion. (Think Kelly Reichardt’s Pacific Northwest films.)
Like an evocative short story, “Clementine” distills its themes. There are doublings and echoes. Not one dog but two dogs. Not one uncanny solo dance but two (to Lightning Dust’s haunting “Antonia Jane,” no less). A key no longer fits a lock; another is no longer in its usual hiding place. A crack in a ceiling and a crack in a stone wall.
Early in their budding intimacy, Karen and Lana are hanging at the water’s edge. Lana tells Karen a story concerning her childhood and a clementine as she peels the sweet-tart fruit. That her account is super improbable becomes part of her story. At the end of the telling, Lana tosses the orange orb into the lake.
It’s too early to state for sure, but restraint appears to be one of Gallagher’s gifts — the kind that rewards moviegoing patience. With this first feature, Gallagher spins a yarn, also peeling a story of attraction and power, identity and coming-of-agency. Only this “Clementine” is no toss off.