By Natasha Samreny
Dear Lemon Lima is the story of a girl who loves a boy and realizes what a jerk he is. But there’s more, and if the story doesn’t keep you, the characters will.
The projected teen fan base might immediately recognize a couple of the supporting actors from recent ABC Family series. Actor Vanessa Marano played artist sister Bay Kennish in Switched at Birth, while stereotypically popular blonde Meaghan Jette Martin starred in the 10 Things I Hate About You series, and the movie Mean Girls 2. However, Lemon Lima (pronounced LIME-uh) is the first feature film for most its young cast. In fact, most of the actors are so new that actor Savannah Wiltfong’s name doesn’t even appear as a credit on the front of the disc box or promo posters. This is the Alaskan native’s first screen role.
Wiltfong plays Vanessa Lemor, a young high schooler working through her first heartbreak with her one true love, Philip Ian Georgey (a.k.a. P.I.G.). After Philip unexpectedly breaks up with Vanessa over the summer, she enrolls in his upscale private school to win him back, and struggles to find acceptance outside of her relationship with him. On her first day of training for the school’s wildly popular sports survival competition, she falls flat on her face and is sent to the weight room where she meets a group of mainstream misfits and future friends. Vanessa’s letters to her diary, Lemon Lima, tap the story along.
Set in Fairbanks, Alaska, Vanessa is awarded the only minority scholarship for her half Yup’ik (Western Eskimo) background. While she and her friends develop their own team to compete in the Snowstorm Survivor championship, they grow confidence in their respective situations and identities. The dialog is smart with simple gems, like when Vanessa colorfully declares what the audience already knew realized about Philip, “He is a slug and our relationship was a trail of slime.” My favorite character performance was Madeline “Nothing” Amigone as played by Maia Lee.
Lee may have had five lines in the entire movie—her main action consisted of occupying the rowing machine in the weight room scenes. A beautiful girl, Nothing’s classmates call her overweight, and her own father seems miffed by her quiet, unchanging attitude. The daughter of well-to-do funeral home owners, Nothing seems to struggle with trying to please her father, and connect with an overly involved but mostly unaware mother. Outside her house, she plays the perfectly unplaceable theremin with her eyes closed; and its transcendent waves immediately affiliate her vibe with an alien ambiance. But Nothing’s soundless stares and arc-filled actions capture the quiet of every scene she attends. As Vanessa and some of the others morph by steep curves, Nothing’s blossoming opens exquisitely, as if she was already knew what she wanted.
Marano’s fun to watch too. She is Samantha Combs, a frizzy-haired, side-ponytail-wearing daughter of a rapper, who doesn’t care what others think. In one of the weight room scenes, she invites Lemon to their Cigarette Club where they meet to collect (not smoke) cigarettes. When Lemon rebuffs, Combs claps her hands, gets up in a huff and walks away followed in march step by adorable red-headed Zane Huett as trusting little Hercules Howard. Such moments are delectably sprinkled throughout the movie, and are pretty neat to watch—when members of a mostly freshman cast show perfect comedic timing with nuanced physical actions that develop their characters that much more and highlight the new emotion of a turning scene. A side-parted head shorter, Howard claps his hands in loyal quickstep, and follows Combs stage right to deliver the beat.
In another scene, the school’s P.E. teacher, Coach Roach, is seen onstage at an awards ceremony, ogling a track-suit-clad-mannequin. It’s weird and doesn’t really make sense, but in contrast to the principal talking at the podium three feet in front of her, the action is so random it ruffles one of those “Whaaat?” chuckles. Coach Roach is played by veteran TV actress Elaine Hendrix (also seen in films The Parent Trap, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and Superstar). She and actor George Bass play their parts so ridiculously stereotypical that you need them to believe the dark humor reality of the other melancholy characters. Hendrix is the short-haired, blonde gym teacher who wears matching gym suits and sounds like a man; and Bass characterizes Señor Victor Montague, the articulately flamboyant Spanish teacher constantly reminding, “En español, por favor,” even when you’re not even in Spanish class.
The film actually delivers on a few levels—as a good family movie (older kids), an unconventional comedy, and a darker coming-of-age comedy. Melissa Leo plays little Hercules’ steely mother who tries to control her son’s choice of nontraditional “non-white” friends, and partners with his father by trading their son’s pet bunny in for a rifle. When Hercules wants to meet the girls for Saturday’s Cigarette Club, he calls Vanessa and asks, “If you could call my mother Mrs. Howard. And please don’t mention ‘cigarette’. Perhaps you would call it a rifle club instead.” While every comedy has a tragedy, I was blindsided when little Hercules killed himself. At that moment, the story becomes more than a typical growing-up flick. You can imagine the real-life experiences that must have formed Yoonessi’s creation, you can hear the parental warnings and cries for help from kids without an open parent relationship.
From the cover, Dear Lemon Lima looks just like one of those candy hearts that still get passed out on Valentine’s Day: cutesy words stamped on pastel shells, too sweet, not very good, and you’ve already had too many. But it’s not. Director Suzi Yoonessi captures a small collection of human relationship experiences and thought processes with painful honesty: fears and challenges young people experience, internalize and don’t always overcome when faced with heartbreak, self-esteem, integration, death and sorrow. Gathered together into a snow globe diorama, it’s definitely worth picking up to shake and watch again.
Special Features: The disc includes deleted scenes, a PDF recreation of Vanessa Lemor’s diary, and Yoonessi’s original 11-minute short film.
The PDF’s sort of cool because the entries actually sound like they were written by an unsure but imaginative 13-year-old dealing with her first heartbreak. While some of the entries are melodramatic or melancholy, others are cute because they reminded me of things I sort of said or did when I was younger, like how to make a cootie catcher. Or, a prompt to write the name of someone you hate on a piece of toilet paper, and then wipe your butt with it.
The most interesting special feature is the short film, because it helps to appreciate the time, effort and changes it took to morph the original piece into a feature film. A few of the actors acted in both versions, including Melissa Leo, George Bass, and Elaine Hutchins who played Terri Lemor (Vanessa’s mom).