Exactly 10 minutes into Clementine—the new noir-flecked, Oregon-shot film from Wieden and Kennedy alum Lara Jean Gallagher—the ghost of Stanley Kubrick pops up. A woman, reeling from a bad breakup, tromps through the woods. She arrives at a dock where a younger woman lies outstretched on a beach towel, sunglasses on, popping clementine slices like candy. The Lolita of it all is unmistakable.
"I didn't want it to be too overt," Gallagher says, laughing. "At least the glasses weren't heart-shaped."
If the callout is deliberate, it's also deliberately flipped. "An older man and a younger woman is this dynamic we've seen in hundreds and hundreds of films, Lolita being the most famous," Gallagher says. "But it's a lot rarer to see an older woman with a younger woman."
The older woman is Karen (Otmara Marrero), up from Los Angeles for an impulsive, grief-driven solo stay at her ex's lake house. The younger one is Lana (Sydney Sweeney of Euphoria and The Handmaid's Tale), an aspiring actress with a slippery backstory. Clementine traces the tense, uncertain trajectory of the two women's connection over a weekend in the country that constantly threatens to go up in flames—sometimes literally.
After a year on the festival circuit, the film was slated for a mid-June theatrical release through indie distributor Oscilloscope. It premiered in competition at Tribeca last April and wound up one of the lucky few to screen at this year's mostly-canceled Portland International Film Festival. Now, with theaters across the country shuttered indefinitely, Gallagher and Oscilloscope have decided to move forward with a digital release—it hits virtual cinemas, including Cinema 21 and Florence's City Lights, on Friday, May 8. (There are also plans to bring it to the NW Film Center's virtual screening room in the immediate future.)
"Of course it's every filmmaker's dream to see their film on the big screen, but it's not about the venue, necessarily. It's about getting as many people to see it as possible," Gallagher says. “[Also,] it really is a film about isolation and what happens when you're in a place you don't expect to be, which seemed to speak to what everyone's going through."
She shot the film, her first feature, in 2017, after finishing grad school at Columbia University. To distinguish herself from "one of the millions in New York or LA doing the same thing," she decided to return to Oregon, where she'd lived and worked for several years before grad school. After extensive location scouting, she landed on coastal Florence—both for its bounty of lakes and because of the enthusiasm she encountered from locals during a lunch scout at the Homegrown Pub. The foliage didn't hurt either. "Making a really low budget, micro-budget film, any production value that you can get in for free with the beauty of Oregon is a no-brainer," Gallagher says.
She utilizes it well. Where the script occasionally falters (certain bits of dialogue sound flowery and stilted, though you get the sense they probably read beautifully on the page), the photography picks up slack: indelible images of low-lit waters, imposing firs, and winding country roads hint at a more elemental story whenever the human one loses steam.
The interiors, too, are haunting. A healthy chunk of Clementine takes place inside the lake house owned by Karen's ex (played, in a brief appearance, by Lost's Sonya Walger), and it's an incredible building, one Gallagher is wise to sacrifice minutes of her tight runtime exploring—full of abstract art, bay windows, and gorgeous mid-century furniture. The longer the two female leads sit inside the house staring at one another, the stronger the Persona vibes become.
It was also hell to track down. "I think it might have been some of my East Coast sensibility left over," Gallagher admits. "There really aren't that many lake houses in Oregon, since so many of the beautiful lakes we think of are protected by the government and there aren’t private homes on them. So it was really, really hard. I do feel like I'm kind of an expert on the lakes in Oregon now."
When she did find the right house, she hardly touched it—it was built in the '60s by the current owners' father and Gallagher did little but add a few desks and a bar cart. The family have been big Clementine supporters: they flew to New York for the Tribeca premiere and showed up for its sold-out opening night screening at PIFF.
All the lake houses in the world couldn't sell a film on their own, though, and at the center of Clementine is Sweeney's Lana, who tips the proceedings from standard breakup fare into something more hypnotic and haunting. Sweeney is a marvel, channeling Kristen Stewart's cool frustration while hinting at something more sinister and out-of-control, and Clementine owes her a significant part of its success. The balance is best typified in a moment that gives the film its name: Lana lays by the water and recounts an afternoon when a small bird pulled a whole clementine off her finger and flew away with it. "It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen," she says. "It got ruined, though. No one believed me."
"In the script, clementines played a bit more of a prominent role than they ended up playing in the final film," Gallagher notes. "But Lana was always eating clementines. I liked that, because it's this kind of childish fruit. They're a healthy snack that seemed childlike but also really provocative. There's a vaginal quality to clementines when you open them up, which I thought was a really interesting metaphor for this young girl that maybe doesn't understand or isn’t totally in control of her sexuality yet."
It's territory Gallagher plans to continue exploring in her next feature, a full-bore horror flick centered on a female protagonist coming of age on the "inherently dramatic" Oregon coast.
"There's something about the Pacific Northwest," she says. "There's that thing where serial killers would bury people [here] in the decomposing woods—it's different from other woods. The wetness has this rot: moss will grow over everything, including you, if you let it. There’s something kind of scary about that."
In virtual cinemas Friday, May 8