An erotic psychodrama about a recently dumped young woman who thinks of her new heartache like a curse she needs to pass on to someone else before it kills her, Lara Jean Gallagher’s “Clementine” begins with an intimate little scene that shadows the rest of the movie. We meet Karen (Otmara Marrero) in some iPhone footage that her unseen ex-girlfriend shot in bed one morning — a loving, needy close-up. “Wake up, I need inspiration,” a sober English voice intones from off-screen. “You’re beautiful. You’re so young.” And then: “You’re going to break my heart.”
Karen replies that she’s “never broken one single heart,” but her response isn’t reassuring. On the contrary, it lingers in the air like an omen. And the more that she loses sight of herself during Gallagher’s loaded but unfulfilled debut feature, the more those words seem to explain her problem. Karen naturally defaulted to a recipient role in her relationship with a much older artist — she was the object of affection, more seen than seeing. Now single, bitter, and flailing for a sense of control, she’s gripped by the desire to look at someone else the same way.
Gallagher doesn’t wait long to give her the chance. More “Persona” than “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (though Sophia Takal’s much sharper “Always Shine” might be its closest relative), “Clementine” is pulled out of the starting blocks by a dark sexual charge that’s strong enough to carry the entire story until it’s snuffed out in the third act. Karen drives to her ex’s lakeside cabin in the remote forests of Oregon, literally and figuratively plunging into Twin Peaks territory as the landscape assumes the same ominous possibility as her mind. When Karen breaks into her ex’s house, she finds that she’s not the only intruder: The owner is nowhere to be found, but a precocious local teen named Lana (“Euphoria” breakout Sydney Sweeney) is sunbathing on the dock.
Blithely confident in the way that only the most vulnerable people can be, Lana is a caricature of her own sexual agency. All mystery and no secrets, everything about her seems just a little too seductive to be real; the way she brushes Karen’s leg, puts herself on display, and seems almost suspiciously available for someone so alluring. It’s hard to know if Lana is setting a trap or caught in her own kind of trouble, and Gallagher’s patient film takes its time to peel back the truth. If the answers are much less important than why these women are trying to hide them, the gun Karen finds in the cabin keeps the stakes high all the same.
Marrero makes the most of a difficult role that’s less passive than it seems, as Karen deflects our gaze away from herself as an expression of her power; she’s at her best when looking at Lana the way that her ex looked at her, and auditioning unearned pearls of wisdom like “You’re only old when you know what you want and that you’ll never get it” to see how they sound coming out of her mouth.
Sweeney is similarly excellent at blurring the difference between innocent babe and femme fatale, but the movie creates a void that her character will never be able to fill. The more we learn about Lana, the more we recognize how the most fraught and compelling dynamic of Gallagher’s story is that between Karen and her absent ex. One shrewd moment finds Karen parroting something to Lana that her ex once said to her — losing herself in the strange limbo between one side of a relationship and the other — but “Clementine” is too fascinated by that vicious cycle to trace a more specific idea of how it works, and the film runs out of ammunition just when it starts firing on all cylinders.
It’s particularly frustrating that “Clementine” loses its focus because Gallagher has such a keen sense of the mood she’s trying to create. Her direction is leading but never forced; subjective, yet never so deep in Karen’s head that we lose sight of the hurt she’s passing from one partner to the next. But if the overall mood is slippery and enigmatic enough that the story could plausibly go to any number of places, it’s strange how implausible (and incomplete) the place it does go turns out to be. For a film that explores how the way that we’re looked at can inform how we see — a film capable of knotting the beautiful and toxic aspects of that process together in a way that makes room for them both — “Clementine” is too prone to navel-gazing to leave a strong impression.
“Clementine’ is now playing in virtual cinemas via Oscilloscope. Click here for more information.