Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Here’s another revenue-sharing online premiere this week: Lara Jean Gallagher’s Clementine, distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories and streamable through this site: https://clementine.oscilloscope.net/
It lists Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum as one of the partners (although, as I write this, NWFF itself does not include the film on its calendar, so go figure). It’s also linked to Bellingham’s Pickford Film Center. And here’s my review.
Inserts are a key component of the movies; they must be important, because it takes effort to prepare a separate shot and it takes up time, even if only a few seconds, in the movie itself. So let us consider a couple of inserts in Lara Gallagher’s Clementine, an accomplished bit of psychological suspense. Early in the film, our protagonist Karen (Otmara Marrero) is on her way out of town, road-tripping to the lake cabin that belongs to her just-became-ex-ladyfriend. Karen pauses in the trip to pull over and squat in the trees and urinate. Gallagher takes a moment out of the journey to include an insert of the pee as it creeps across the forest soil, the kind of peculiar not-absorbing-just-yet puddling that most of us have witnessed in our outdoor lives.
What’s this for? An act of defiance on Karen’s part, a marking of territory? A little signpost of the point where civilization gives way to something less genteel? That would fit, because not only is Karen about to break a window to get into the well-appointed lake house, she’s also going to enter an unstable scenario that will involve vague menace, jailbait, and a gun that very much wants to go off, or at least be waved around, by the end of the third act.
Or maybe the insert is just about Karen noticing things, if indeed she notices this; she’s an artist, albeit a budding one (much in the shadow of her successful older lover), and an artist is supposed to notice things. That might be where our other insert comes in: A little later in the film, after Karen has settled in to the house and we’ve had time to appreciate the handsomely-stoned fireplace, Gallagher includes a close-up of that rockwork. Seems there’s a big crack snaking across the hearth. Now here, the directorial choice starts to feel a little pushy. The pee-shot is mysterious, elusive, open to different explanations or finally inexplicable; the time-out to show a crack in the wall is letting us know that all is not well here, and there’s more seismic shifting to come.
Clementine is a little bit like this: at times evocative and enigmatic, at times frankly precious. (Chief among the latter elements is the explanation for the title—which might also be a nod to Jane Campion’s Peel.) But Gallagher’s talent in the tactile elements of filmmaking puts Clementine over nicely: This film is shrewdly paced, its tone secure save for a couple of wobbles, and the acting well-judged. The way we infer Karen’s breakup in the opening minutes is subtly managed, and the movie’s central design—depicting how power dynamics between lovers are replicated in new relationships—is ingeniously done.
I’m trying not to say too much about the plot, because Clementine is heavy on mood and ominous portent, and you can’t guess exactly where it’s headed. Two of the people Karen meets at the lake, a restless teenager (Sydney Sweeney) and a handyman (Will Brittain), are up to something, though we know not what. The tension builds, effectively, but at some point Gallagher needs to tie things up, which is the part that sometimes gets tricky in a mood-piece like this. I’m not sure some of the unlikelier turns of the film’s final half-hour are convincing, but there’s enough intrigue by then for Clementine to get by on its reservoir of atmosphere and disquiet.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.