Breakups are hard enough, but the situation can go from sorrowful to hopeless when you get kicked out and have nowhere to go. Frustrated with her older girlfriend’s decision to lock her out, Karen (Otmara Marrero) drives out to her ex’s secluded Oregon cabin, where she finds a teenager named Lana (Sydney Sweeney) on the cusp of her sexuality, as well as some even darker truths she has yet to learn about herself.
Clementine is the first feature film directed by Lara Gallagher, who also writes this screenplay about a woman who entertains the idea of becoming the mentor figure in a possible relationship with a significantly younger partner. Unlike other LGBTQ films with this element of old and young lovers coming together, Clementine never overlooks the emotional and ethical complexity of instigating such a connection. Instead, it takes its time exploring the basic friendship and inherent chemistry between its two leads, as well as the fundamental morality of engaging this temptation in the first place, notably when a local handyman (Will Brittain) throws his wrench into the building affection between Karen and Lana.
As far as slow, summertime indie movies go, Clementine avoids many of the tropes and basks in a lot of its own glow. Nothing here is overstated, almost to a fault, but instead Gallagher relies on superb editing and framing to provide context for its sparse moments of thrill and tension, especially in places where the purposeful lies of the characters are relied on as a performance overlaying a performance.
This isn’t a romance novel come to life, it’s instead a patient character study, which means it also demands a fair bit of patience from the viewer. It’s a film more focused on what to cut out rather than what to cram in; a refreshing change of pace considering how often these feature films from debut directors tend to contain too many ideas and tricks for even the most invested audience to process efficiently.
And this is truly a film that serves its main lead, Marrero, quite well. Unlike Sweeney, who has popped up in high-profile streaming offerings like Everything Sucks!, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Euphoria, Marrero has carved out a quieter acting career to rising success, and Clementine is a promising step forward for the underseen actor. She has to walk a fine line between a hurt ex-lover and a confused wanderer of her own identity, and it helps that Sweeney plays off her stoic nature so well with a believable energy that never rings as false or put upon, beyond the actual writing suggesting the young girl might be playing a part.
The nuances of the performances and the crisp messages about honest relationships are the two major selling points of Clementine, but that doesn’t mean the film will fully satisfy everyone in search of a breezy indie from a daring filmmaker. The slow pace and contemplative editing choices are sure to frustrate seasoned viewers who’d likely respond better to this in a movie theater (this premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival), where the entire frame can be a more spellbinding affair. In a home full of distractions, Clementine might get lost in the noise, if only because it takes so long to present its thesis statement and general hook.
But for those who do indulge their senses in this warm, and occasionally surprising debut film, they’re in for something sweet to the senses—and far more special and lasting than many other VOD indies to hit in 2020, particularly the ones shouting the loudest to be heard. Clementine is more soft-spoken by comparison, and for many who happen to discover its charms, it might even be a small gem they won’t want to idly toss into the wayside.