A Sweet and Tart Friendship Peels Apart in ‘Clementine’

Writer and director Lara Jean Gallagher discusses her debut feature film.

Lana (Sydney Sweeney) peels a clementine, places her thumb in the core and holds it up to the sun. She’s lounging on a lakeside dock telling her companion a story that sounds fictional. Karen (Otmara Marrero) is lulled by her voice and the soporific sunshine. She’s also distraught after a breakup. The unnerving musical score reinforces the idea that Lana’s an unreliable narrator. She’s playful in a way that may or may not be menacing. But in her state of vulnerability and isolation, Karen’s a willing audience. Together, they find each other in this dreamy setting, testing each other’s boundaries and temporarily suspending their defenses.

Summer shades of yellow and orange and gold refract across the frame during this scene. It’s the central image of seduction in Lara Jean Gallagher’s film Clementine. In a phone interview this week, Gallagher talked about the symbolism of that peeled clementine. “When I first got the idea, it’s a childlike and innocent fruit that kids are often eating. At the same time, there’s this vaginal quality to a clementine when you open it up that’s undeniable.” 

Forbidden fruit.

Karen’s in her early 20s but several years older than the teenaged Lana. She, and the director, recognize the in-between place that Lana’s in. “The clementine represented that toggle within Lana that I thought was interesting.” Clad in a skimpier bikini than the one that Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita wore, Lana acts with more agency and self-determination than her cinematic forebear. But Gallagher is exploring more than one character’s sexual coming-of-age.

Clementine closely follows Karen’s long drive away from Los Angeles — where she’s been locked out of the house she used to share with her ex (Sonya Walger) — to her subsequent retreat to a lonely mountain town. Gallagher says that she wanted to make a film about “the period when your ex isn’t answering your calls anymore but you’re still not over it.” The film observes Karen in that “languid and confusing time” when she can choose to let the failed relationship consume her or figure out how to change and get over it.

Gallagher believes that “the thriller elements come into place” as we watch Karen’s mental state wax and wane. The pacing is so relaxed that Clementine is best-described as thriller-adjacent. It’s a subdued psychological profile that’s amped up by an insistent score. Marrero conveys just how hard it is to trust another person after a bad break up. But Karen’s insecurity reads as paranoia when the orchestra brandishes a round of threatening arpeggios.

“Karen’s lost all sense of herself, who she is and what she’s capable of. Emotionally, this felt like a thriller to me,” Gallagher explains. She wanted to show how Karen tries to fix the pain and sadness that she’s feeling. Visually, the initial road trip and the wooded location by the lake could have suggested the makings of a lighter story. Working with Bay Area composer Katy Jarzebowski, the director wanted the audience to stay anchored in Karen’s tumultuous emotional state: “This isn’t a happy vacation.” Jarzebowski incorporates elements from the natural environment “to create a theme and a feeling that was authentic to where Karen was emotionally.”

Alone. Together.

The sense of Karen’s disorientation is compounded by the fact that Marrero, a Miami native, had never been to the Pacific Northwest (Clementine was filmed in Oregon). The actress wasn’t keen on being in the woods or the water. For Lana, the lake is a place to relax and have fun but for Karen, Gallagher says, “there’s this dichotomy between the woods being beautiful and peaceful but also being ominous and scary.” Especially to someone who’s never seen them before. 

Clementine sets up a realistic dynamic between two young women who are both in transition. It’s less intense than My Summer of Love (2004), a film that explores similar dynamics in a female friendship. Gallagher’s plotting is looser, more opaque and the drama never rises above a slow boil. The audience has to wait until the final scene to learn where Lana comes from. It’s a mystery that the director sets up as “a jarring, wake-up call for Karen.” She’ll either act like Eve and devour the forbidden fruit or walk away from its sweet and tantalizing refulgence.

Now playing at the Virtual Rialto Cinemas in El Cerrito and Elmwood

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