“Clementine” has all the makings of a juicy coming-of-age story, but struggles to pull it all together
Originally published on Elements of Madness
From writer/director Lara Jean Gallagher, Clementine is a psychological drama and emotional think-piece that deals with the consequences of a breakup and the rocky, unstable journey from one stage of life to the next. Aspiring artist Karen (Otmara Marrero) is depressed and disillusioned after an intense breakup. In search of both closure and revenge, she drives to her ex’s picturesque lake house in Oregon, breaks in, and makes herself at home. She soon meets teenage Lana (Sydney Sweeney), who lives across the lake and starts wandering around the property one evening in search of her runaway dog. Flighty and carefree, Lana captivates Karen with her innocent spirit. As Karen teaches Lana about things like record players and abstract art, attraction and desire begin to bubble beneath the surface of their relationship. However, Karen isn’t finished getting over her ex, and Lana has troubles and secrets of her own.
Considering her post-breakup vulnerability, Karen makes for the ideal character to invite the audience into the story. Her tired, broken, and introspective mental state provides a strong emotional hook and opens many narrative possibilities. Although Clementine is stingy with Karen’s specific background information, it creates a clear picture of both her nostalgia and her dark, impulsive thoughts in the opening sequence, pulling us in with a textured emotional landscape rather than the specifics of her story. Karen’s initial drive to the lake house is a foreboding and beautiful journey that captures her intimate thoughts and sets the mood for a psychological thriller. Ominous music accompanies shots of the shaded, lonely forests of the pacific northwest. Closeups of Karen’s eyes darting back and forth across busy roads create a sense of suspicion and anxiety. A shot of the lonely, deserted lake house driveway from the back of Karen’s car creates the feeling that we are entering a sort of underworld or perhaps even the dark corners of Karen’s consciousness. All this sets the stage for Karen’s first bold and impulsive move: breaking into her ex’s lake house.
Indeed, with an artist as the main character, Clementine’s cinematography seems to reflect Karen’s own perspective as an artist. The film is filled with beautiful and striking sequences that create a sort of cinematic poetry. Much like Karen might observe the world around her as she looks for inspiration, the cinematography in Clementine is slow and deliberate, drawing attention to small details like a crack in the wall or the slow spread of a newly formed puddle on the dirt. Clementine creates pleasing contrasts between the geometric shapes of the lake house and the irregular patterns in nature. The film’s minimalistic score also helps to solidify its thoughtful, poetic mood. The twinkling and suspenseful tones create the feeling that Karen is in a sort of nightmarish neverland of her own mind where she must face the consequences of growing up.
But this strong aesthetic foundation alone is not enough to carry the entire film. Unfortunately, when Karen and Lana meet and exchange their first few words, the film shifts from a dark and whimsical art-piece to a cringey teenage drama. Karen and Lana’s dialogue is stiff, unsatisfactory, and initially confusing. It seems that Karen and Lana are supposed to act as foils to each other. Karen is an edgy, rugged individualist while Lana is a wide-eyed, quirky, and innocent dreamer. However, as the two women begin to interact and embody these defining character traits, it becomes clear that neither actress is quite comfortable in her respective role. At times, Lana’s quirks seem fake and over-rehearsed, making her come across as annoying and pretentious. Perhaps these negative traits are simply part of her character as well, but the over-rehearsed and pretentious moments make it more difficult to believe that Karen is attracted to Lana. Similarly, when Karen says lines like “I’ll be damned,” lines that should solidify her rugged individualism, the words seem wrong and over-practiced, like a child cursing for the first time to impress older kids.
The issue of age and maturity is actually one of the central themes in Clementine. Karen certainly feels older than ever before as she experiences the disillusionment of a breakup and works through new levels of heartbreak and depression. She also seems to have reached a certain age where she no longer considers herself a young-adult and feels uncertain about her identity as a fully-grown adult. These are certainly valid emotional conflicts that make the perfect seeds for a great story of self-discovery. However, the age and maturity themes in Clementine get muddled by Karen and Lana’s murky characterization. Clementine never actually tells us how old Karen is, and the hints it does give us about her age are more confusing than helpful. Part of the problem is not Clementine itself, but the film industry’s tendency to cast 30-year-olds as high school students. When we see an actress like Marerro in her late twenties or early thirties in loose jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt, taking impulsive and illegal actions to get back at an ex, our movie-watching knowledge and experience tells us to assume that the character is a high-school or college student. Then, when Karen looks at Lana in one of their early scenes together and says, with longing, “you’re so young,” the line is laughable. After all, didn’t this similarly young person just break into her ex’s house? With this one line (which is, unfortunately, repeated several times,) Karen and Lana’s moments together go from memorable vignettes of sexual awakening and self-discovery to something like a badly scripted teen movie where high-school characters are put into unrealistic adult situations. The age theme becomes more solid as the plot unfolds, and Clementine slowly clears up confusion and suggests that Karen might be older than the film initially suggested. However, it is difficult for the viewer to get over that first impression that Karen is a teenager with a big ego.
Clementine is a multi-layered film, however, and these cringe-worthy moments do not completely rob the film of its power. Clementine has a strong visual base that solidifies the story. Although the characters may not be one-hundred percent believable or likable, they are fascinating to watch as they inhabit a dream-like setting that acts as an escape from boring, everyday life. It may be difficult to take certain lines seriously, but the characters and the narrative still have something to teach us. Clementine simply requires more work from its audience to piece together the message it is trying to convey, but it certainly provides us with stunning visuals to contemplate as we figure that message out.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."