Ever since her 2011 short film “Eat,” filmmaker Janicza Bravo has presented a baffling vision of absurd circumstances that defy simple categorization. Throughout subsequent shorts such as “Gregory Go Boom” and “Man Rots From the Head” (both of which star Michael Cera, in the former as a suicidal paraplegic), Bravo’s peculiar style maintains an unnerving quality that feels like cringe-comedy but often takes a sharp turn into odd and alarming glimpses of angry, pathetic characters.
“Lemon,” her feature-length debut, continues that indelible tendency with its deranged portrait of a self-involved man (Brett Gelman, the director’s husband and co-writer) so ruthlessly unpleasant that everything he does contributes to the destruction of his life. Enhanced by a number of notable comedic actors entering uncharted terrain, it’s the kind of movie that makes you laugh and flinch in equal measures, and despite some messier twists, never ceases to move in surprising directions.
Bravo’s eccentric approach can be so disorienting and unpleasant that it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate the sheer gall of it, and she wastes no time kickstarting the wackiness in “Lemon.” A slow-moving opening shot reveals the messy apartment inhabited by Isaac (Gelman), a frumpy, bearded acting teacher who lives with his blind girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer), whom he pushes around like property while dropping pompous lines about his superior intellect. Elsewhere, he attempts to rehearse a hilariously ill-conceived production of “The Seagull,” in which he mostly heaps praise on hyperbolic leading man Alex (a curly-haired Cera) while condescending to his female counterpart in a series of long-winded performances. Despite his best efforts, Isaac fails to bond with Alex, and eventually scares him off; it doesn’t take long for Ramona to follow suit, leaving him in utter desolation.
Genuinely strange and surprising at every moment, “Lemon” stumbles through some of its early meandering vignettes, but crystallizes its approach during a prolonged second act when Isaac pays a visit to his eccentric Jewish family for a bizarre Passover seder. The sequence features a range of familiar faces to complement Gelman’s deadpan comic timing: Rhea Perlman and Fred Melamed play Isaac’s parents, while Martin Starr echoes Gelman’s monotone as his brother, and Shiri Appleby (currently starring on Lifetime’s “Unreal”) plays his neurotic sister. At the end of a night dominated by dinner table bickering, they gather around the piano to sing the hysterical upbeat tune “A Million Matzoh Balls,” while Isaac sits nearby and mouths the words, wearing a vacant stare. Woody Allen by way of Luis Buñuel, it’s a first-rate surrealist set piece, among the handful of outrageous moments that sustain the elevated lunacy in Bravo’s sightlines throughout.
The filmmaker excels at presenting uncompromising characters and magnifying their worst traits, and Gelman’s an ideal vessel for her peculiar approach. He’s never pleasant to watch, but remains a constant object of morbid fascination.
Somehow, Isaac manages to charm the soft-spoken Jamaican-American Cleo (Nia Long), whom he meets at a commercial shoot, and launches into a newfound obsession. The essence of Bravo’s boundary-pushing storytelling arrives in a pivotal scene in which Isaac masturbates at home while chanting “your favorite name” as a fantasy version of Cleo whispers “Isaac” again and again. Later, when the real-life version takes an inexplicable liking to him, it sets the stage for a climactic cookout in which Isaac makes a clumsy attempt to bond with her family and ends up insulting them instead. Ending with a prolonged scatological punchline worthy of John Waters, “Lemon” leads to no grand epiphany or explication of its themes, content to merely hover in Isaac’s discontent.
Like her contemporary Rick Alverson (“Entertainment,” “The Comedy”), Bravo doesn’t shy from the extremes of alienation and despair, nor the way the expression of those sentiments can lead to jarring punchline. Not every high-concept joke lands, but she keeps punching away anyway, and there’s an undeniable twisted poetry to the ongoing assault.
“Lemon” premiered in the NEXT section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.