{Movie Review} Clementine (2020)

In Clementine, twenty-something Karen (Otmara Marrero) is floundering following the aftermath of a messy break-up with an older woman known only as D. (Sonya Walger),. Following an unsuccessful attempt to liberate D.’s dog from her home (it turns out the locks have been changed), she heads out of LA, sleeping in her car until she makes it to a small town in Oregon. This time locks don’t stop her, and she breaks into D.’s lake house, a supposed escape that is really more a retracing of steps along a familiar fault line.

Clementine (2020, dir. Lara Jean Gallagher) is a story about patterns, and about aging and pretending to age, trying on a costume version of maturity only to realize it can never fit—or, worse, that it’s no longer a costume at all. “You’re only old when you know what you want and that you’ll never get it,” says Karen at one point, and as vulnerable as her youth may make her feel, it’s clear that she sees age as something worse: the final, indelible stamp of disappointment. 

Aspiring actress Lana (Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney), whom Karen encounters at the lake, meets age like a dare she’s given herself. The first time Karen sees Lana, Lana doesn’t see her. Karen heads to the lake for a swim, but falters when she sees a blonde girl in a bikini, the picture of summer spread out on a pink beach towel. She’s such a contrast to the darker tone of the film so far that she seems almost like a transplant from some rom-com. Karen retreats to the house, only for Lana to come find her, skulking through the trees.

Lana tells Karen she’s looking for her lost dog, and asks if Karen will drive her around to search for him. Karen doesn’t believe her—and the audience probably won’t either. What kind of young girl asks for help from a stranger so blithely, like it’s never occurred to her that she might get hurt? Karen wonders the same thing. What girl gets in a car with a stranger at night? This film is a thriller, so a dangerous girl…right?

Clementine creates tension so effectively that as Lana’s behavior grows more unnerving, the list of possible explanations does as well. She knows simultaneously too much (somehow sensing when the phone rings that it’s Karen’s ex) and not enough (“How do you do your eyeliner so well? Will you teach me?”), almost basking in her youthful naivete. She claims to be nineteen, and it’s just barely plausible enough that Karen, already drawn to her, can decide to believe it.

Karen, meanwhile, is trying to overcome the pitfalls of her youth by emulating D. She breaks into her house, wears her make-up, and tests out how she fits into the contours of D.’s role in their dynamic, with Lana cast opposite her. She is simultaneously trying to reach the happy version of herself that once existed in the lake house, and trying to shed that self entirely. 

At one point, Lana and Karen run through the woods together, giggling and out of breath. They are trying to evade Beau (Will Brittain), a handyman employed by D. to watch the house—and, as becomes increasingly clear, Karen. Karen is hesitant to give in to the game, but once she does she loses herself, sprinting ahead of Lana, who watches her with an unreadable expression. Lana seems to be playing two games at once: evading a boy who clearly likes her, inching ever-closer to a girl who seems to as well.

When the two finally slow, Karen is suddenly agitated, confused to see that Lana is no longer by her side. When Lana does reappear, Karen reaches out suddenly to grab her chin and glare into her eyes, saying, “Don’t do anything stupid.”

It’s a phrase we’ve seen before, in a text from D., who is clearly worried that Karen will hurt herself. Although they’re former lovers, D. has a maternalistic air about her. She tries to retroactively give Karen permission to visit the lake house, but Karen is having none of it: “You don’t get to invite me. I broke in.” 

It’s clear that Karen has never had power in their relationship, no matter how special she’s been made to feel. The dynamic infuriates her—and perhaps for that reason, she is compelled to replicate it with Lana.

Clementine creates its uncanny atmosphere by making the absolute most of its wooded lakeside setting; it just seems like a place for secrets. Full of lilting music that mirrors the birdsong and insect chatter of the surrounding woods, with as many long shadows in the eerie and sophisticated house as there are in the thick forest, this film takes advantage of our expectations. 

Lindsey Lee Wallace

And just as Karen emulates D., Lana emulates Karen, calling to mind Single White Female and The Roommate, and other stories where one woman undertakes a sinister endeavor to become another. She tries on Karen’s bathing suit and shirt. She paints her toenails with Karen’s blue polish, and even pulls the sock right off Karen’s foot. When the two eventually kiss (Karen turning away and saying, “I’m old,” and Lana grabbing her face, turning it back, replying, “Not yet,”), Lana is still wearing Karen’s clothes. 

Karen becomes more dominant, issuing directives, but things falter when Lana begins to cry. Sweeney delivers a stunning performance, telling Karen a story of manipulation and exploitation that shifts the dynamic once again. Lana is not a danger, she is in danger. 

Karen leaves the house in a fury, determined to right this wrong. When she returns, having once again leaned into the most reckless of her instincts, Lana is gone. D. has taken her place. 

She explains that she’s taken Lana, who is “bored and a liar,” home. She shakes her head at Karen, wanting to know if playing pretend in D.’s house has made her feel important, if seducing Lana here has made her feel big. And yet, despite her posturing, there’s a glint of insecurity to D. It’s clear that none of these characters, despite their age, despite who owns this grand house and who only pretends to, has ever really felt at home.

Karen deals D. the most devastating blow she can conceive of: she calls her old, and flees to find Lana. It’s clear that she’s imagining the same horror movie explanations for Lana’s behavior that we have—but sometimes maturity is realizing that the truth can be both horrible and mundane at once.

Like the eponymous fruit, Clementine reveals the truth to viewers in segments, careful and bittersweet. Clementine comes out on all digital platforms February 8th.

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