Film festivals have a specific frenetic, celebratory energy, as creators prepare to debut new work, publicists scramble for good early buzz, and cinephiles anxiously anticipate the next big-screen revelation. It’s a particularly rewarding experience if you’re hungry for more and better representation of marginalized people in movies, as these little indies are often jam-packed with never-before-seen depictions of women, LGBT people, and people of color. It was with this infectious optimism that I sat down for the world premiere of Lara Jean Gallagher’s “Clementine” at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. And then I got a 90-minute crash course in disappointment.
On paper, “Clementine” is intriguing. Karen (Otmara Marrero), a catatonically depressed lesbian, is haunted by a separation from her cheating ex, “D” (Sonya Walger). Still firmly in the “petty crime” stage of post-breakup insanity, Karen tries to steal back their shared dog, compulsively calls D, and breaks into D’s super-shi-shi Oregon lake house. (Been there, girl!) But her enthralling plans (step one: vaguely menace ex by squatting in her home, step two: TBD) are interrupted by Lana (Sydney Sweeney), a mysterious teen with big-city dreams, a rockin’ bod, and— you guessed it—complicated feelings about clementine fruits. Lust, confusion, and deception ensue.
The ghost of “Call Me by Your Name,” with its parallel bathing suit-filled longing, fruit-sweetened sumptuousness, and age gap romance, hovers above “Clementine,” a case study in everything the latter seems to be missing. The desire between this film’s leads is hollow at best, their climactic moment of intimate connection beginning with a makeup tutorial scene that’s more “male sleepover porn” than “believable lesbianism.” The decades between them are somehow both reviled and ignored. The teenager literally throws her uneaten clementine into the ocean.
Much like slices of a clementine are far more satisfying than, say, trying to eat the entire thing at once with the skin on, the film’s disparate parts are far better than their end summation. (This is better clementine symbolism than what the film actually proposes, trust me.) Sydney Sweeney’s performance, Andres Karu’s cinematography, Emily E. A. Baker’s sets, and Katy Jarzebowski’s Hitchcockian score are breathtakingly excellent on their own, though together they blend into a bizarrely tone-deaf whole. Screechy betrayal music plays over benign dialogue. Sweeney has to say things like, “Can I braid your hair?” with a straight face.
If “Clementine” were a comedy, it would already be halfway to brilliance. Unfortunately, this film is a noir-ish melodrama so oversaturated with dourness that it borders on parody. The characters barely smile, relaying overwrought lines to each other with all the vivacity of extras in the “before” scenes of a Zoloft commercial. Though it’s gorgeous to look at, this leaden lesbian love story has little else to offer. I would kill to live in that lake house, though. [D]