There’s a soft, dim quality to the air in Clementine, the feature debut of writer-director Lara Gallagher. It sometimes blurs into murkiness, but mostly it gives the psychological drama an appropriately dusky glow. This is a movie about not being able to see others clearly, and how that distorts the way you see yourself.
Clementine is mostly set at a lake house that’s nestled in deep, shadowy woods. The sun filters through in a way that’s lovely, but not illuminating. Karen (Otmara Marrero), a twentysomething artist, has fled there after being dumped by her lover, even though the house belongs to the older woman. After breaking a window, settling in, and heading to the lake for a swim, Karen discovers another infiltrator sunbathing on the dock: Lana (Sydney Sweeney), a teenager who claims to be living nearby with an older man who has promised to take her to Los Angeles to become an actress.
Karen and Lana form a tentative, suspicious bond (there’s something strange about the way Lana repeatedly asks Karen if she thinks she’s lying). As it grows, their relationship is constantly in flux. One moment Karen seems motherly; later the two seem to be sisters. They also toy with being lovers of their own. In the way some of this mirrors Karen’s relationship with her ex (at one point she tells Lana, “Don’t do anything stupid,” shortly after her ex has texted her the exact same thing), Clementine recalls Ingmar Bergman’s classic, claustrophobic identity puzzles (Persona, Cries and Whipsers). Yet there’s also a sinister edge that brings to mind Henri-Georges Clouzot’s pulpier Diabolique.
It takes two strong lead performances to convey all these permutations. Marrero wears Karen’s woundedness like a weapon, while Sweeney gives Lana a sylphlike slipperiness. Gallagher, working with cinematographer Andres Karu, shoots both women beautifully—it’s as if the dappled sunlight provides an organic version of the soft focus we associate with classic Hollywood. Yet at the same time, the filmmaking always has an element of unease, as when Karen pulls to the side of the road for a bathroom break and Gallagher’s camera pauses to notice the urine she leaves behind seeping into the ground. In fact, that’s how the light registers throughout Clementine. Instead of shining, it seeps.