More of an alluring curiosity than a proper coming-of-age story, Clementine, the feature debut from writer/director Lara Jean Gallagher, features two captivating lead performances trapped in a story that is part psychological thriller, part relationship drama, and part something that might not have a name but seems to incorporate the reinvention and rediscovery of oneself after a particularly traumatizing breakup.
When we meet Karen (Otmara Marrero), she’s breaking into the spacious, Pacific Northwest lake house of her unfaithful former lover D. (Sonya Walger, mostly only represented via phone calls and messages). Karen is still reeling and uncertain what comes next in her life, but something about being surrounded by D.’s possessions, in a space that clearly meant something to them, seems to ground her in the smallest of ways. She buys a few groceries and generally makes herself at home. D. eventually becomes aware that Karen is at the house, but doesn’t seem to mind at first. The most intriguing part of the movie is that we’re never quite sure what any of the characters are thinking. Karen might snap and burn the place to the ground; she finds a gun hidden away in the house, so the possibility of suicide also stumbles into the frame. And it’s that not knowing that creates a low-lying but ever-present tension.
Karen runs into a younger woman named Lana (Sydney Sweeney, recently seen in Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, and the HBO series “Euphoria”) wandering the property, looking for her lost dog. Karen agrees to drive Lana around in search of the dog, which Karen isn’t certain exists. Claiming she’s on her way to Los Angeles to become an actress, Lana is even more of a question mark than Karen—she seems unfazed by the world around her, tells stories about her life that never quite seem true, and deflects questions put to her about other aspects of her existence, as if deliberately keeping herself a mystery. She seems like trouble waiting to happen, and in another type of film, she might be the femme fatale; but in Clementine, she’s so odd and enticing that Karen doesn’t so much fall for her as she is bewitched by her.
But when a young handyman, Beau (Will Brittain), shows up to do scheduled repairs on the lake house, he throws the dynamic between the two women into disarray, as Lana begins to mercilessly flirt with the strapping lad, leaving Karen miffed and wondering if she read the signals wrong, sending her down an emotional spiral once again. As we watch Lana operate, it becomes clear that she is testing out different “characters” in her quest to become a better actress. Her emotional connection to Karen seems genuine, but we also find out later in a creepy audition tape that she can make herself cry at will. So the question with Lana becomes a perpetual game of “What’s real and what is acting?” And it’s only then that the depth and complexity of Sweeney’s performance is revealed.
With so much impressive emotional energy on display for much of Clementine, the film’s third act—which includes D. finally making an appearance—is a bit understated and underwhelming, but not less compelling as certain mysteries about Lana are solved and Karen is finally offered a chance at steadying her life. Clementine takes us on a journey that seems strangely both inevitable yet highly unpredictable, and it’s a strong showing for first-time filmmaker Gallagher, who I hope to continues down the storytelling path in future films of exploring the still-evolving and volatile personalities of younger people.
The film is now available via Oscilloscope’s Virtual Cinema program; your rental goes to support the theater of your choice.
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