DEAR LEMON LIMA (2009)
Starring Savannah Wiltfong, Shayne Topp, Zane Huett, Elaine Hendrix, Eleanor Hutchins, Meaghan Jette Martin, Vanessa Marano, Maia Lee, Beth Grant, Chase Wright Vanek, Emma Noelle Roberts, Kari Nissena, Elaine Lee, Bob McCracken and Melissa Leo.
Screenplay by Suzi Yoonessi.
Directed by Suzi Yoonessi.
Distributed by Phase 4 Films. 87 minutes. Rated PG.
In the sensation-saturated world of modern filmmaking, it is easy for a sweet, gentle, eccentric soul like Dear Lemon Lima to slip through the cracks.
After all, it is a coming-of-age drama about an eternally upbeat but left-of-center Alaskan nerdy girl who tries to find her place in a very offbeat school all the while weathering the dissolution of her long-held platonic crush with a totally full-of-himself local kid.
Dear Lemon Lima is the writing and directing debut of a mostly unknown filmmaker. The movie was actually made in 2009 and has been two years making it to the cinemas. It is a longer version of a mostly-unknown 2007 short film by the same name.
It is about an odd location smack dab in the middle of the Palin state – although in all fairness, the arts-centric private school shown here is about as far away as you can get from the gun-totin’ hockey-mom world of Wasilla. The movie puts a microscope on a part of life that is awkward and occasionally hard to get nostalgic about.
The cast is also mostly unknown. The two closest things to name stars here both merely have smallish supporting roles: Meaghan Jette Martin (star of the series 10 Things I Hate About You and the recent made-for-video Mean Girls 2) as an empathetic cheerleader, and current Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actress Melissa Leo of The Fighter (ed. Note: Leo ended up winning the Oscar less that two weeks before Lemon Lima’s limited release) – who plays the uptight and overly protective mother of a sickly schoolboy.
The rest of the cast has a decent amount of faces that you know that you’ve seen – but most of whom you’ll have a bit of trouble placing. Some of these are Beth Grant, Elaine Hendrix and my personal favorite rediscovery here, the wonderfully deadpan Vanessa Marano – who I was eventually able to place as the girl who had played Luke’s daughter April on Gilmore Girls.
So, no, Dear Lemon Lima isn’t built for box office speed. In fact, it is rather inevitable that this film won’t even get a decimal point of the audience take of – oh, say, Vanessa Hudgens’ much-more-obvious and focus-group-programmed teen-angst film Beastly, which is getting a much wider opening on the same weekend. I’m not sure what that tells us about our society, but it probably isn’t a good thing.
Because, with the exception of one ill-conceived and overly melodramatic plot turn, Dear Lemon Lima is actually a charmingly smart, funny and idiosyncratic at look at life’s outcasts.
Writer/director Suzi Yoonessi has obviously been somewhat inspired by the peculiarly funny and insightful works of Wes Anderson (most specifically Rushmore) – but she brings a much more sensitive eye to her characters. Also, the lead character is much more charismatic and imaginative and refuses to wallow in self-pity.
Dear Lemon Lima also rides on one of the most promising young performances in recent memory. Savanah Wiltfong’s lead performance is her first role ever on film or television and it is stunning for its lack of guile and thespian bad habits. Really, someone sign this girl up again. She is that good.
Wiltfong plays Vanessa Lemor, a young teen suburban Alaskan girl who is has a huge crush on her long-time best friend Phillip (Shayne Topp), but he has unloaded the “just friends” speech on her. Vanessa is offered a scholarship to Phillip’s exclusive private-school due to her half-Indian background – despite the fact that her long-absentee father was the Indian half and she has no interest in the man or his culture. Still, she decides to take the scholarship in order to keep an eye on Phillip.
You never quite know what Vanessa sees in Phillip – from the very beginning the guy seems like a bit of a tool – but with Wiltfong’s subtle work it is fascinating to see her slowly seeing the guy for what he is really like.
In certain ways, this part of Dear Lemon Lima is a slightly more successful adaptation of the ideas of Rob Reiner’s recent tween-age romance Flipped – both are funny and charming but Lemon Lima feels much less calculated and definitely less Hollywood.
In the meantime, Vanessa’s lack of coordination gets her into a group of the school’s losers – the FUBAR group – and yet she is able to make connections which help her grow and expand as a young woman.
This all leads to a closing school Olympics in which the FUBARs take on Phillip’s in crowd – a sequence which honestly does go on a bit too long. Still, at least it is done much more lightheartedly and idiosyncratically than you’d have any right to expect.
However, other than the fact that the contest went on too long and the single ill-conceived melodramatic twist which I mentioned earlier, Dear Lemon Lima is engaging and sweetly sentimental. (I won’t say what the twist is because I don’t want to be a spoiler, but if you see the movie it will stick out like a sore thumb.)
It is the type of small, slightly odd film that normally gets overlooked, but with a little audience TLC I could see Dear Lemon Lima growing a passionate cult following.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 4, 2011.