With film festivals increasingly looking for films from underrepresented voices in recent years, one byproduct of the coronavirus-prompted theater closings is that movies coming out of those festivals from minorities, women and the LGBT community have found themselves going to VOD or streaming rather than theaters.
In the last couple of weeks alone, that has meant virtual premieres for the debut features from Tayarisha Poe (“Selah and the Spades”), Sonejuhi Sinha (“Stray Dolls”) and Andrew Onwubolu (“Blue Story”), as well as the first feature in 15 years from Alice Wu (“The Half of It”) and the first theatrical film in 24 years from Coky Giedroyc (“How to Build a Girl”).
Also up this week: “Clementine,” a quiet exploration of female relationships from Lara Jean Gallagher, a writer and director of shorts and music videos who is making her feature-film debut. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019 (the last Tribeca that actually took place) and was picked up by Oscilloscope, which is giving it a release in virtual cinemas.
As arty and distinctive as you’d expect from an Oscilloscope film, “Clementine” nonetheless struggles to be involving as it tells an uneasy story in a determinedly subdued way. It begins with Karen, played by Otmara Marrero, in bed in Los Angeles as her older girlfriend, who we know only as D., mutters sweet nothings; one scene later, D. has changed the locks and Karen is on her own.
Apparently with no place to go except properties owned by D., Karen heads to a remote cabin on a lake in the Pacific Northwest. Though it’s set in the stillness of a thick forest, the cabin isn’t woodsy or homey; it’s sparse, stylish and modern, filled with art presumably done by D.
In its opening stretches, the movie is sparse and still, too. Karen needs to use a rock to break a window to get in the house, but we just see the broken glass, not the crash. The camera moves slowly, as cautious as Karen as she explores a territory where she once belonged but is now an interloper.
She spots Lana, a teenage girl who seemingly lives nearby and is borrowing Karen’s dock to sunbathe, but quickly retreats before Lana (played by Sydney Sweeney from “Everything Sucks!” and “Euphoria”) spots her. But she can’t elude Lana for long: before long, the younger woman has flagged Karen down to help her search for a lost dog, and in short order they’re hanging out together.
Karen is wounded and wary, Lana is young and flirty, and clearly neither of them is telling the other the whole story. But Lana wants to go to L.A. and become an actress, so she’s impressed by Karen – though their dialogue skirts what’s really happening and withholds vital information, like what Karen’s doing at the cabin and how old Lana is.
And it unfolds ever so slowly, with pregnant pauses between almost every line.
“You should be careful,” Karen tells Lana about L.A.
Lana waits, then says, “Why?”
Karen pauses. “There are people out there who will take advantage of you if you let them.”
Pause. “Why would I let them?”
Pause. “Never mind.”
Pause. “You’re cool.”
The acting is supposed to be naturalistic, although it’s hard to imagine that any actual group of people this age would speak like this. This is the art-movie version of naturalism, where the actors are so casual that they don’t appear to be acting, but the weight of every utterance slows natural conversation to a crawl.
The film requires you to relax and sink into its quiet rhythms, and for a while it’s not hard to do that as Karen finds herself intrigued by Lana, then threatened by Beau, a local handyman who’s clearly been sent by D. (who knows where Karen is) to keep an eye on the house and the interloper. “Clementine” always threatens to turn into a love story, or a coming-of-age, sexual-awakening drama, but it never gets there because the filmmaker and the characters opt for restraint whenever possible.
Meanwhile, Katy Jarzebowski’s unsettling score tries its hardest to make you think you’re watching a thriller, with the echoes of plunked piano note and the scraping of bows across strings suggesting that something sinister is about to happen.
The approach is dramatic and artful, to a degree, but also so studied and stylized that you yearn for some kind of release – and after about an hour, it becomes wearying unless you’re fully submerged in this world.
But the mood is broken when Lana has a long monologue in which she tearfully confesses that the night before, she’d stripped in front of a camera for a local man who claimed to know someone in Los Angeles who could help her. It gives the film more energy, though it also leads to a sequence that seems oddly melodramatic and out of character, even if we knew something like it was coming.
(It’s hardly a spoiler to say that if your lead character opens a drawer in Act 1 and finds a gun, she’s gonna pick it up by Act 3.)
In the end, though, the story isn’t really about the gun, or about how one of the girls likes the variety of oranges known as clementines and the other doesn’t, or even about the relationship between the two. It’s about Karen figuring out where to go and who to be in the aftermath of a devastating breakup. She might not really figure anything out, but she learns enough to make the ending quietly satisfying, if you have the patience to get that far.