Clementine @Nashville Film Festival
Nashville Film Festival coverage by Jason Sparks, Our Man In Nashville
Because Lara Jean Gallagher’s Clementine is a movie about a failed romance between two women, I assumed that the titular Clementine would be the main character. I was incorrect. The title comes from a story told by a young girl about the fruit known as Clementines (citrus, about half the size and sweetness of an orange). The girl, she says, once balanced a clementine on the end of her finger, only to have it stolen away by a bird.
The story may or may not have ever happened. What matters is the telling of the story, and the context in which it’s being told. It’s being told by Lana (Sydney Sweeney), a girl apparently in her early twenties, to Karen (Otmara Marrero), a woman in her early thirties. Lana is telling the story, in slow, languid tones, while the two women sunbathe on a pier by a lake house—a house to which neither woman, strictly speaking, is supposed to have access. The house belongs to a woman known only as D. (Sonya Walger), a successful and affluent artist; in the first scene, she and Karen are still together, and D., marveling at Karen’s beauty, predicts that Karen will “go on to break a lot of hearts someday.” Ultimately, Karen receives the broken heart, however; D. breaks up with her, and insists on keeping Karen’s dog. It’s an acrimonious breakup, obviously, and Karen’s response is to break into the lake house and stay there indefinitely.
She meets Lana at the house; one night, Lana knocks on the door and asks for help finding her own dog. Karen reluctantly agrees, doubting that there even is a dog to be found—partially because Lana says the dog’s name is literally Bingo. Find him they do, however, and as Karen is about to send Lana home (or to whichever lake house she’s renting; Lana is extremely cagey about which), Lana tells a story of a bad boyfriend, and his as-yet-unfulfilled promise to take her to Los Angeles to become an actress. Karen, alone and vulnerable, allows Lana, also apparently alone and vulnerable, to stay for the night. They smoke pot, they dance to vinyl records (not together, not yet), and they discuss their ages and age differences. Karen doesn’t say outright that she is old compared to Lana, but she does say this: “You’re only old when you know what you want—and that you’ll never get it.” It’s a line that I took notice of and wrote down, because my cinematic Spidey-senses told me that it was An Important Line Full Of Meaning And Foreshadowing. Note to potential screenwriters: There is nothing wrong with writing An Important Line Full Of Meaning And Foreshadowing and putting said line into a character’s mouth (See also “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me” or “I stick my neck out for nobody” or “A man named Darth Vader killed your father.”) Ideally, however, your viewer will be so engrossed in the film that said viewer does not have the presence of mind to say to themselves, “Aha! An Important Line Full Of Meaning And Foreshadowing!”
Lana stays, of course, for more than the night; she’s there for most of the film’s second act, swimming and talking and dancing with Karen, and it’s apparent that there is a relationship in the offing here—or is there? These are two characters who clearly stand to benefit from each other; Karen could claim a new lover, a younger one (thus, we suppose, shifting the power balance in Karen’s favor), and Lana could get to Los Angeles under the auspices of this kinder, more mature person (we do finally meet the boyfriend, played as a study in neutral evil by Chase Offerle), and he…well, when Karen learns of his actual agenda, the lad winds up at gunpoint. (As well he should; a skeevy friend of his, claiming to be a talent agent, has convinced Lana to create an “audition reel”, which reel Karen finally throws into the lake.)
That’s a bit of a spoiler, granted, but it serves to telegraph the fact that Karen has genuine feelings for Lana. They seem terribly close to launching an actual relationship—possibly the first love scene I’ve ever seen to contain an actual element of suspense—but D. is a presence in this story, even though she is almost never seen. D. has a proxy in the form of Beau (Will Brittain), the groundskeeper at the lake house, who suddenly/conveniently has a lot of work to do at the house (beginning with repairing the window Karen broke to get in.) His official tasks include sawing limbs off of trees and the like; his unofficial duties include flirting with Lana, observing the budding relationship between the two women, and undermining it in ways subtle and un-subtle (like telling Karen, “what are you even doing? She’s not a dyke!”) I’m not entirely sure what to make of Beau. He seems to be a form of shorthand for toxic masculinity, hegenomic normalcy, and all the rest—then again, he’s being a macho jerk at the behest of D., so who’s agenda does he actually serve here?
D. eventually shows up at the lake house, to reclaim her property and discard her former property, and Karen, soon after defending Lana’s honor from Tommy, learns the entire truth about Lana, which truth means that they shouldn’t and literally can’t pursue a relationship: Lana is in fact a teenage girl, playing at being older. Actually, Karen still doesn’t learn the entire truth, as she never learns why Lana deceived her. The truth is such a blow to Karen that she doesn’t press the issue. The relationship ends with a single phone call between Karen and Lana, in which very little is said, especially by Karen, who finally has power in the relationship, but has to be a responsible human being as well. Both seem torn apart by the call, each shedding tears by the time it’s over. However deceptive Lana may have been, and for whatever the reason, she seems to genuinely ache for what she’s losing. Karen ends the film alone, save for her finally-returned dog.
As a film, I can’t fault it for any lack of competency. It’s well-directed, beautifully shot by Andres Karu; there’s not a sub-par performance to be found here, especially from Marrero, for whom our sympathy is immediate. I find myself left, however, wondering one thing: to what end was this film made? I’m not trying to insist on a Hollywood ending for every film, but I am given to wonder why we have been shown this kind, gentle woman who was mistreated and…is mistreated again. In an interview, Gallagher says that the film is based on her own experiences, and is an examination of “the cyclical nature of relationships—how we can be hurt but then go on to hurt someone else in almost the exact same way.” Here’s the thing about that: while Lana is clearly hurt by the breakup, it’s patently obvious that Karen suffers more. Also, given what we learn about Lana, she (1) is in less of a position to be hurt (2) could be said to have it coming.
I find myself concerned, in a way, about Clementine, and I’m either absolutely right to have this concern, or it’s none of my business. I am a heterosexual cis-gender male, married 24 years to the same woman, and as such, I realize that I’m on the outside looking in here. I don’t know how wide of an audience Clementine will ultimately enjoy, but I fear that other heterosexual cis-gender viewers of a somewhat more conservative bent may see this film and say to themselves, “welp, guess I was right about that being a bad lifestyle choice!” or words to that effect. If Gallagher made this film as a sort of catharsis, a post-mortem of a bad breakup, I can’t fault her for that; when Woody Allen used to do it, I ate that kind of thing up. (Now, as an adoptive father myself, I never want him to make a dime off of me again.) Is it possible, though, for a film to be so personal that it doesn’t serve any of its viewers?