Clementine begins with a woman breaking into a Florence, Ore., lake house and staying awhile. The lonesome Karen (Otmara Marrero) is as shattered as the window she's climbing through. Still, the real uninvited guest is time.
Despite the endless summer feeling of Portland director Lara Jean Gallagher's debut feature—replete with campfires, joint passing and unscheduled sunbathing—all that Karen and townie ingénue Lana (Sydney Sweeney) can seem to talk about is their ages. Karen, nursing the wounds of a fresh break from an older girlfriend, is near 30. Lana says she's 19.
"For me, part of the inspiration for the story was dating somebody older and more successful, and then getting to be that age myself and reflecting on what that means," says Gallagher, whose film is in virtual cinemas now, via reputable indie distributor Oscilloscope Labs.
Gallagher's minimal drama proves slippery, as Karen and Lana's conversations morph from earnest confessions to self-mythologizing lies, and back again. Karen needs to find a foothold in her emotional free fall; Lana seeks an escape hatch from small-town drudgery. The mystery hanging thick in the coastal summer air is whether that makes them each others' soulmates or suckers.
Employing the evergreen concept of Oregon as a place to lose and rediscover oneself, Clementine certainly owes something to Kelly Reichardt, with its semi-unknowable female protagonist and lack of a safety net. Then there's the film's lightly dangerous sensuality, which invites Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola into the conversation. Leg brushes, hair braiding and bed sharing look sisterly in one light and sexual in another. Composer Katy Jarzebowski's atonal, woodwind-driven score goes a long way toward injecting Karen and Lana's relationship with peril. That said, Gallagher says she never set out to dip more than "a toe" in the thriller genre.
"Karen is at this breaking point," the director says. "She could do something because of her hurt that changes the course of her life. Or she can learn from it and hopefully do better. The thriller idea was kind of like, 'Am I going to let my life be a thriller, or go the other way?'"
Even if theatrical and continued festival ambitions were cut off by COVID-19, Clementine can count its blessings. For one, Sweeney has ascended to the verge of stardom in the three years since this production. She's snagged roles on shows like Sharp Objects, The Handmaid's Tale and Euphoria, and even popped up in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.
"There was something about her audition tape where I just knew," says Gallagher of the now 22-year-old performer. "Watching her walk around a room, even between lines of dialogue, she had a calm confidence and control a lot of young actors don't."
Ultimately, time is on both Sweeney's and Gallagher's sides. Just a few years out from a master's degree in directing from Columbia University, a couple of award-winning short films, and some eye-catching music videos for artists like Allison Crutchfield and Ex Hex, the director has a well-received full-length debut on her hands—Clementine won Best Narrative Feature at the 2019 Bend Film Festival last year and competed at Tribeca.
Even if Gallagher once freely obsessed over the age of Citizen Kane-era Orson Welles with her film school pals (oh, that dreaded 25), she has more positive lenses to consider the passage of time than prodigies and their early accomplishments. The second of four western Pennsylvania-raised sisters, Gallagher says she's always made sense of her life by observing her older sibling's. In turn, she's watched her younger sisters use her as the measuring stick.
Mining that cycle of time for wisdom might be poor Karen's saving grace, too. The next best thing to accepting age as a number is wielding its power for good: Write a coming-of-age movie, not a thriller.
SEE IT: Clementine streams in virtual cinemas that can be found at clementine.oscilloscope.net.