(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of film reviews and cultural observations from 2017’s South by Southwest festival.)
In one sense, there is nothing to “get” about Janicza Bravo’s bold and elusive feature-film debut, Lemon. It’s more of an intense (and often uncomfortable) thing to be experienced. A few viewers walked out of the screening I attended last month during South by Southwest in Austin.
Halfway through the film, I uncomfortably realized I was watching the most timely entry into SXSW 2017. It’s the boldest and most interesting movie to come out of the mega-fest in the past two years.
It addresses primal elements that almost have to be obscured and dolled up in the sad and futile dances of actors who are beautiful despite themselves. Bravo knows the elements that tear us apart. As such, Lemon takes risks that once gave indie film its substance and secret luster.
Struggling actor goes from bad to worse
Lemon explores the world of frustrated actor Isaac Lachmann (Adult Swim’s Brett Gelman, who, incidentally, is married to Bravo). He is mildly abusive to his blind wife, Ramona (Judy Greer), and why wouldn’t he be? Out in the world, he holds court teaching an acting class where he preaches Chekhov and “real acting.” He dismisses the sweet actress (former Community star Gillian Jacobs) and dotes instead on the eccentric, promising young actor Alex (wild-haired Michael Cera, with brainy mannerisms akin to Dustin Hoffman in the ’70s) who is experimenting with animal-imitation methods.
The movie gets weirder the longer it follows Lachmann’s sad sack around. He learns that a photo shoot he recently landed will be for an STD-awareness campaign. During a Passover Seder dinner with the rest of his Jewish family, this is what he has to brag about. The dialogue is always highly staged and mannered, and it gives an unreal tone to each interaction.
In the makeup chair for the STD photo shoot, Isaac meets Cleo (Nia Long, in a welcome return to film), a Jamaican-American girl with a glowing smile (Bravo is Latin American by way of Panama). When he first sees her, he thinks about the black boy whom his socially conscious family has adopted and dotes on. This is all he can bring up, and he can’t articulate much about it, which confuses Cleo. She agrees, somehow, to go on a date with Isaac anyway. A jarring flush of sunlight enters the film like never before when they are in Cleo’s homespace.
A high-art examination of a troll (Warning: Spoilers ahead)
Lemon has a few authentic shocks. I have to ruin one, so here is the requisite spoiler alert: When he can’t be with or as good an actor as Alex, Isaac sneaks out into the night to vandalize his car. The phrase scrawled in black spray paint is taboo and absurd, “White N—er.” This artistic choice of Bravo’s absurdly cripples and soars because it’s happening to Michael Cera’s character.
The remainder of the film hovers over Isaac in a way that seems to challenge us to be interested in his affections and soul — by us witnessing his secret moment of racism and then later giving him a shot at love with Cleo. The film feels more outsider than most, and its energy depends on it.
Isaac in Lemon represents a kind of person who is ruled by their resentments. He wants to get out but cannot despite repeated tries — this accounts for the effect of grandeur the classical music score has. Lemon wisely disguises this anatomy of a troll as an art film.
It doesn’t have to explain itself. It takes high-art and surrealist liberties when it wants. While getting inside shameful and ugly elements of personality, the filmmakers, from outside the tale, appear willing to go anywhere — from the insider bingo of the actor’s studio to tragic social hallucinations. That it doesn’t explain all of its ideas makes it worth returning to. It’s not an insult to a hipster’s comfort, but it loves discomforting the hipster.
‘Lemon’ renews the purpose of SXSW’s films
If there is any indication that the divisions in our country will not be healed, Lemon is probably it. Stylized, but a more-direct-than-usual portrait of a troll and his world. Perhaps no movie in recent years has so succinctly tapped into this particular kind of underground and prejudiced anger, carried over into a general anger which is inseparable from the film’s considerable art.
Bravo’s acclaimed short-film trajectory took a turn toward social concern when she made Hard World For Small Things. The short film, shot in the virtual-reality format, is a response to the death of her cousin. He was visiting Brooklyn from Panama in the summer of 1999 when police killed him in a case of mistaken identity.
The skewed genius of the movie is to convey its wild sorrow only subconsciously. It announces itself as avant garde, beyond explanation. Director Bravo had introduced it to a jury of her overly sensitive and unthoughtful peers as something they would not like. By doing so, the real feelings, which are felt across the screen, stay hidden, untaught.
But if the film world is smart they will demand that the talented Bravo please keep expressing and explaining herself, lest festivals like this lose their sense of why they should be here.