By Christopher Campbell | Spout February 28, 2011 at 5:38AM
Newly minted Oscar winner Melissa Leo has a new film out this Friday (in theaters and on VOD), one you've probably never heard of. "Dear Lemon Lima" has been on the festival circuit for a couple years and is finally becoming available to a wide audiences, albeit still without much awareness. Hopefully this post can give it a little extra push, because it is a pretty great little coming of age story. Press materials describe it as similar to "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Youth in Revolt," only for girls, but I'm happy to say it's not that at all -- nor does it remind me of "Juno" or "Ghost World," which I've also seen mentioned as allied predecessors. Surprisingly, it's not really comparable to any other movies. Aside from being based on a short film, which seems more like a test run for the feature version (kind of like the original "Bottle Rocket"), it's actually a completely fresh and original work, and a delightful one at that.
Written and directed by Suzi Yoonessi, "Dear Lemon Lima" stars newcomer Savanah Wiltfong, who is part Eskimo (specifically Yup'ik), as 14-year-old Vanessa, a half-Eskimo teen in Fairbanks, Alaska, whose link to her indigenous heritage is physically absent. She lives only with her white mother and would easily be thought of as white if not for the constant reminders and recognition of her ancestry through honors and her school, which is way too obsessed with local Native American culture. But the main plot of the film concerns something more superficial: Vanessa has been dumped over the summer by her prim and pretentious boyfriend (Shayne Topp), a nerd gone popular, whose family appeasr to be of some importance in town. She ends up even more of an outcast and ultimately the exes square off in a kind of junior version of the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, called Snowstorm Survivors. Leo has a supporting role as the overprotective mother of one of Vanessa's new "FUBAR" friends who make up her team of underdog misfits.
As described, the primary storyline does sound like just another unoriginal underdog sports movie. But the way these kids follow through with their successes and failures is unique and there are some sad surprises along the way. Meanwhile Philip, the ex-boyfriend, is a total jerk, yet not in an exaggerated villain sort of way. He's still relatively friendly and polite to Vanessa to the end, as many boys his age would be. Another popular kid makes a realistically subtle change from bad to good. This is how I remember that time. Not filled with boldly distinguishable cliques as has been the norm since the days of John Hughes teen movies but for the most part flatly homogeneous. Maybe it's because the school in "Dear Lemon Lima" is so small and therefore has little room for a hard social structure other than popular and minor outcast (basically just a handful of students who aren't strong athletes). Regardless, it makes for a good parallel to a running theme of community relative to the Yup'ik traditions Vanessa begins to embrace.
The film tackles a common issue for teenagers of fitting in and parallels it smartly but delicately with the history of Native Americans adjusting to their forced assimilation into white culture. And Vanessa's school is clearly going through a very serious guilt-based need to pay tribute to the culture nearly eliminated. Led by Beth Grant, who almost recycles her character from "Donnie Darko," as the school's principal, they must attend assemblies to watch Eskimo dance, required reading includes Velma Wallis' "Two Old Women" and of course there's the competition, which includes stunts inspired by Eskimo survival skills and hunting procedures. Vanessa is also, against her interests and personally defined identity, a Molly Hootch scholar, named for an Eskimo teen who led an educational reform campaign in Alaska in the 1970s. Whenever it's brought up, she likes to remind people she's only half Yup'ik and has no connection to the people.
"Dear Lemon Lima" has some good messages for teens without going overboard. There is a little to do also with global warming, mentioned once but implied throughout given how the film takes place in central Alaska yet the kids are constantly in swimming pools and wearing very light clothing. It's not a movie I'd recommend to everyone. The tone is perhaps too unaccustomed, it's lack of dramatic peaks and valleys -- even when a major character dies and when the competition is over -- too foreign for many viewers. It is certainly more for a young audience, specifically an open-minded one, probably more female than male, and at times feels like it's been adapted from a YA novel. I want to say it's too three dimensional and layered to not have come from some Newbery Honor winner, as I can't think of the last original coming of age story not full of the usual indie quirk and preciousness I've seen.
One last note of praise: I rarely comment on score, but I love the music in "Dear Lemon Lima," which is by Sasha Gordon. That name may sound familiar after last night, because she has a connection to another newly minted Oscar winner. She is the girlfriend of "God of Love" director Luke Matheny, thanked in his speech, and she scored that short film, too. I expect Matheny will be on the rise after his win and I fully expect and hope for Gordon, whether or not because of him, to keep getting bigger as well.
Below is the trailer for the feature film, which opens in L.A. and NYC and debuts on VOD March 4. Beneath the trailer is Yoonessi's original short, also titled "Dear Lemon Lima." Leo is one of the few actors to appear in both. Fans of Miranda July's "Me and You and Everyone We Know" will recognize Miles Thompson as that version's Philip.