Lemon ★★★½

Janicza Bravo makes some bold choices in her feature debut. Some of them work and some of them don't, but they were all fascinating at the very least. Co-written by Bravo and her husband/lead actor Brett Gelman, the script itself is pretty damn weird, but it's the direction she takes it in that makes Lemon compelling. Her blocking of the actors alone is something remarkable -- the juxtaposition of characters sitting perfectly still in front of a passionately dancing crowd, having characters sit back-to-back in dialogue scenes -- and her use of off-screen space and unconventional sequencing of shots just solidifies the confidence of her camera. The abstract, self-aware editing by Joi McMillon (Moonlight) incorporates the film's surrealism and absurdity into its form, and it's effective in creating a consistent tone, albeit a strange one.

There might be a lot else going on, but ultimately, Lemon is a comedy. It's a pretty good one, too. I'm just not sure exactly what I'm supposed to take away from it. There's a lot of attention paid to Isaac's career as an actor in the first half, specifically on the chaos of it. Bravo seems to be using the Los Angeles setting as a venue for reflection, most of the character's being from New York. The presentation of the acting class makes it all look a little absurd, the techniques being hollow and the critiques coming across as random. It works in its humor, a way of poking fun at the self-importance of New York artists, but it's a bit unclear whether her critiques lay more with the craft of acting itself, the industry that surrounds it, or the atmosphere of New York/Los Angeles. At least it's funny.

The most enjoyable and interesting aspect of Lemon for me was Isaac's relationship with Cleo. The fallout of his relationship with Ramona is what acts as the premise, but it's more so just to establish his emotional state, rather than ever being a significant point of conflict. Isaac is consistently an awkward man, but that awkwardness turns into something more when he's interacting with Cleo and her family. There's such a difference between White liberals who actually have friends of color and those who don't. He talks to her family as if they've never heard of racism, and his discomfort is revealing of what are clearly some subconscious racist values. Many people think that they can successfully navigate an interracial relationship based on attraction alone, but without any kind of cultural understanding, that relationship is doomed. These elements are even more fascinating when you look at them in their full context, knowing that Bravo herself is a black woman and is married to this exact man.

Lemon is just over 80 minutes, but in truth, it feels quite a bit longer. It's delightfully absurd, but not all of its quirk serves purpose. It's style and substance in equal measure, and both aspects are a little uneven. The humor here might be too uncomfortable or cringe-worthy for some audiences, particularly towards the end, but my theater seemed to be having a good time throughout. If nothing else, Lemon is a memorable film and a unique debut (despite a few overt references). I'm excited to see what Bravo does next.

Amongst other reasons to see this, it's probably the best performance I've seen from Michael Cera outside of Scott Pilgrim. Bravo and him are the same kind of delightfully weird.

Rating: 70/100

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