April 27, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Laura Jean Gallagher
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27, 2019.
“Clementine,” the first feature film from writer/director Lara Jean Gallagher, is a slow burn of a drama that is more of a psychological portrait than a psychological thriller. No one in the movie is named Clementine; the movie’s title comes from what clementine oranges mean to the central characters Karen (played by Otmara Marrero) and Lana (played by Sydney Sweeney). You’ll have to see the movie to find out how clementine oranges are mentioned, but we’re first introduced to Karen at the beginning of the film, when she breaks into a remote Oregon lake house owned by her older ex-girlfriend. The Karen character is supposed to be 29, but Marrero looks and acts much younger than a typical 29-year-old.
When there is a movie that takes place primarily in a secluded lake house in the woods, all sorts of sinister things usually ensue. But in the case of “Clementine,” don’t expect there to be any mysterious killer on the loose. Instead, the movie plays guessing games about who is trustworthy when it comes to matters of the heart.
It’s apparent early on that Karen’s breakup with her ex-girlfriend is recent and painful, because she broke into the house with the intent of taking back a dog without her ex-girlfriend’s knowledge. It’s unclear if Karen has rightful custody of the dog, but what is clear is that Karen feels that she deserves to have custody. When she finds out that the dog isn’t at the house, she decides to stay while she contemplates her next move. The only thing that viewers know about the ex-girlfriend, who’s named “D” (and is played in a cameo by Sonya Walger), is that “D” is a busy career woman who’s broken Karen’s heart, and Karen knows enough about her schedule to know when “D” won’t be at the lake house.
One evening, a teenager named Lana shows up at the house and asks Karen to help her look for her lost dog. Karen is a little reluctant to help at first, but she agrees, even though the sun is going down and it will soon get dark outside. They get in Karen’s car to search, and as the night wears on, they still haven’t found the dog. Karen’s skepticism grows, while she’s aware that she’s becoming sexually attracted to the mysterious Lana, who says she’s 19 and living with a boyfriend not too far from the lake house. Just when Karen is about to end the search because she thinks she’s being conned, Lana finds the dog, and Karen lets her guard down because she thinks Lana might be an honest person after all.
It isn’t long before they exchange phone numbers, and Karen invites Lana over for a late-night visit. Lana opens up to Karen and says she’s an aspiring actress, and the boyfriend she lives with is neglectful and someone who might be emotionally abusive. At first, Karen pretends that she lives in the lake house, but Lana quickly figures out the truth when Karen’s ex-girlfriend “D” unexpectedly calls on the house phone. It’s clear that the movie wants us to see that Karen projects a lot of her own experiences onto Lana as a way to bond with her: the idea of being seduced by an older woman, having unfulfilled dreams, and even searching for a beloved dog.
As Karen and Lana spend more time together at the house, Lana gives Karen subtle hints that she’s attracted to her, and Karen tries to decide if she’s going to initiate a romantic relationship with Lana. One day, the sexual tension between the two gets even more complicated when a young man aptly named Beau (played by Will Brittain), who does yard work and other maintenance for the house, shows up to do some work, and he openly flirts with Lana. Much to Karen’s dismay, Lana flirts back with Beau. Sensing Karen’s jealousy, Lana flirts with Beau even more whenever Karen is around.
All of this might turn into a suspenseful love triangle, but the movie takes somewhat of a ridiculous turn in the last 20 minutes when Karen commits an act of revenge that’s straight out of a Lifetime movie. The motivations for her to commit such a risky act don’t ring true, considering viewers know at that point in the movie if Karen and Lana have a future as a couple.
Marrero gives a solid performance as someone having inner morality conflicts over getting romantically involved with a teenager (even if the teen says she’s over the legal age of consent), but Sweeney has to carry the heavier acting load as someone who may or may not be a manipulative Lolita type. Unfortunately, the teen seductress role has been done so many times before in better-written movies that Sweeney often falls short of the challenge to create a fascinating and memorable character. The Lana character is certainly capable of inspiring lust, but Sweeney’s portrayal of Lana lacks the necessary charm that would make it believable that Lana would inspire true love. By the time secrets are revealed in the movie, the ending of “Clementine” is so anti-climactic that people won’t care much about happens to the characters after the movie ends.
UPDATE: Oscilloscope Laboratories will release “Clementine” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on May 8, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is July 14, 2020.