(The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival runs April 24-May 5 in New York City. HtN has writers Matt Delman, Chris Reed and Mike S. Ryan at the fest to get ready for our always deep coverage! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?
A lake house is supposed to be a place to relax and de-stress, but in cinema it’s often the setting for psychological horror. Just ask the family in Jordan Peele’s Us or Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, but Lara Jean Gallagher’s feature debut Clementine owes more to another recent Tribeca Film Festival entry, Sofia Takal’s Always Shine. Gallagher, like Takal, excels at building tension out of seemingly innocuous situations. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly when our society became so paranoid and insecure that our movies started substituting boogeymen for passive aggression, but most of the pervading unease reads true. Anchored by the mysterious Sydney Sweeney, Clementine is a seductive lesbian thriller elevated by Gallagher’s keen direction and swift pacing.
Karen (Otmara Marrero) just got dumped by an older woman, so she decides to do what any millennial might and break into her ex’s lake house because, well fuck her, right? But being alone in the woods isn’t as fun as she initially imagined. Luckily there’s a cute girl, Lana (Sydney Sweeney), prancing around nearby to distract her from her heartbreak. There’s also a dude (Will Britain), menacing or harmless (?), who shares her affinity for Lana, and also happens to be the handyman for the Ex’s house. After a bad experience with a couple of other young men (I won’t spoil it here), Lana comes over to Karen’s ex’s lake house late one night for an impromptu sleepover. The problem is Lana seems too young (she lies about her age), and Karen has to reconcile her obvious attraction to her with the moral and legal repercussions of statutory snuggling. Lana tells Karen what the young men did and Karen takes matters into her own hands, evolving from victim to vigilante. Also the Ex (Sonya Walger) finally shows up to further complicate things.
In lesser hands Clementine may have just been another cookie-cutter cabin-in-the-woods, but there are a number of elements that make it worth the watch. The formidable editing by Alexander Morris somehow evokes a sense of dread where there shouldn’t logically be any. The pacing is pitch perfect, sometimes cutting hard on a shot unexpectedly, and other times lingering—a scene where Lana’s dog gets loose and we wait in the darkness for many moments before she returns feels out of a Murakami novel. The plucky score by Katy Jarzebowski is also a highlight, pulling all the right strings at the right moments to instill psychological terror in the audience. Marrero is fine as our protagonist, but the beguiling Sweeney steals the show with her steely glances and bewitching charm.
Gallagher pulls it all together in this promising debut. The pseudo-sexual thriller is less a critique on our generational malaise than a provocative tale of love lost and love longed for. Despite Lana’s age, we are never meant to feel that Karen is taking advantage of her — to the contrary, Lana is the one in the driver’s seat. The elements of suspense heighten the mystery, and it’s easy for the audience, like Karen, to fall under Lana’s enchantment. The title comes from a piece of fruit that Lana tosses into the lake. Read into that symbolism however you like, but it’s Sweeney’s screen presence that will stick with you after the credits roll.