The days may be blending into each other, but the seasons, at least, are starting to show significant change. Spring is here, with the start of summer soon to follow. Even if you’re still spending most of your time at home, spring has both a sense of promise to it, and a feeling of change that’s sometimes hopeful – and sometimes a little mysterious. Like fall, spring can be an eerie season.
With its lazy sunlight and curiously fraught undertones, Lara Gallagher’s slow-burn drama Clementine (out now on virtual screening rooms) is a perfect spring release. Gallagher’s first feature displays an impressive control of tone and understanding of the importance setting plays in telling a story. It belongs to the fascinating subgenre of Female Lake House Movies – a designation that includes films like Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth and Sophia Takal’s Always Shine – which use their secluded, idyllic natural locations to explore the relationship dynamics and crumbling sanity of their characters.
Clementine’s troubled woman in question is Karen (Otmara Marrero), a woman in her late 20s who’s recently broken up with an artist, D (Sonia Walger), several years her senior. With nowhere else to go, Karen breaks into D’s swanky lake house to temporarily collect herself. While she’s there, Karen gets mixed up with drifter Lana (Sydney Sweeney), who says she’s 19 but may be younger, and harbors dreams of moving to L.A. to be an actress. Meanwhile, Karen’s receiving creepy calls from D, and being watched closely by her handyman (Will Brittain).
When Lana first visits Karen at D’s lake house, Karen says of her ex’s abstract paintings on the wall, “it’s more about the process than the result.” The same could be said of Clementine itself, which is less interested in creating a twisty plot than it is in exploring Karen, and the nature of her relationship with the mostly absent D. Gallagher does this largely through set decoration, showing rather than telling what this relationship was like. The incongruous appearance of landline phones tell us something about D’s age as opposed to Karen, who uses an iPhone. The lake house is full of D’s artwork, though Karen is herself an artist – there’s clearly not much of a place for her here.
There are also subtle markers of characters’ personalities sprinkled throughout. When Karen can’t immediately find a key to get into the house, she breaks open the kitchen window, only to find a hide-a-key prominently displayed later. Karen’s issues with acting before thinking become a problem throughout the story. Lana dresses like a worldly young woman, but acts like an innocent, putting the audience and Karen in constant confusion as to who, or what, she really is. The final reveal of that information is subtle, but so well-communicated visually that it still hits like a smack in the face.
Throughout Clementine, the off-kilter feeling of the setting, the conflict, and the mental state of its main character casts a sense of foreboding that never lets up. It always seems as if something frightening or heartbreaking could happen without warning. It’s an atmosphere that the film probably owes as much to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock as it does to its lake movie predecessors; dreamy, withholding, and a little creepy.
Clementine’s languid pacing and love of visual detail don’t equate to lots of action or an abundance of plotting. It is, however, a great movie for a lazy spring afternoon, one that doesn’t require mental gymnastics to track, but is intriguing enough to keep you on the hook throughout. Viewers who love craft will also appreciate the tidy, well-thought way it presents its setting and characters while avoiding exposition-dumping. It’s clear Gallagher knows her stuff, and Clementine will hopefully be a stylish launching pad.
“Clementine” is now playing in virtual cinemas everywhere.