Editor’s Note: This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (almost exactly a year ago), but Dear Lemon Lima is now in theaters in New York and Los Angeles and available on VOD, so it seemed fitting to run it again.
What an oddly beautiful and bittersweet little film this is…
Vanessa (Savanah Wiltfong) sits and enjoys an ice cream cone with her boyfriend Philip (Shayne Topp) at the beginning of summer vacation in suburban Alaska. Life couldn’t be any better, which is of course the perfect time for Philip to break up with her… he’s heading to France for the summer, and he fully expects that when he returns the two of them will no longer be compatible equals. He comes from wealth and privilege, and she’s just a half white, half Yup’ik Eskimo lucky to have had his family pull strings to get her into his exclusive private school as the token native. Goodbye love and happiness, hello misery and loneliness.
As school starts Vanessa’s instinct is to downplay her heritage to avoid unwanted attention, and her plan is to find a win back Philip’s heart. Things don’t quite go as planned though as the school gears up for the annual ‘Snowstorm Survivor Challenge,’ a sporting competition that theoretically utilizes Eskimo skills and talents in honor of the land’s native people, and Vanessa realizes that winning might be her only way back into Philip’s arms. She joins forces with an odd and eccentric group of fellow “losers” and sets out to do the impossible. Low expectations and an unforeseen tragedy mar her path, but the heart is a persistent hunter… especially when it doesn’t really know what it’s looking for.
In synopsis form like that the movie feels like any other coming-of-age tale about overcoming societal adversity and first loves, but writer/director Suzi Yoonessi has a lot more on her mind than just Baked Alaskan cliche… like bunnies, ominous shadow puppets, parents blind to the needs of their children, and decades of racial bigotry and condescension. Not quite your typical zit-filled comedy about the woes of a clumsy adolescence. The system attempts to force Eskimo culture onto its sole Eskimo for all the wrong reasons and succeeds for all the right ones.
The first thing that stands out about Yoonessi’s film are the small animations that come to life on the screen. They’re limited in size and frequency so as not to take over the movie with an unnecessary sense of quirk, but they add just the right amount of whimsy and loose creativity. Vanessa writes letters to her imaginary friend and fills them with illustrations that live and breathe in short bursts before coming to rest on the page. The film is also filled with colors, both natural and man-made, from Vanessa’s constant hair dyes, to native costumes, to a mysterious graffiti artist spreading words of love around town.
Wiltfong is fantastic, and she brings Vanessa to life with a believable awkwardness and beauty. She straddles the gap between childhood innocence and adult awareness with an abandon that just feels right and natural. Her gangly limbs and round cheeks bring to mind Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) after two months in a taffy-pulling machine, and she carries herself like someone strangely curious about where her body’s going but determined to remain as comfortable in it as possible along the way. She manages normalcy, pathos, and snark with equal aplomb, and I hope to see her in more films soon. The rest of the cast holds their own but one performance that deserves special mention is Topp’s handling of the narcissistic Philip. He is an undeniable prick, but Topp manages to find the occasional heart in the boy who at one time truly did find Vanessa to be a special friend.
Yoonessi is Iranian-American which most assuredly helped in her understanding of Vanessa’s journey, but it’s her eye as a filmmaker that shines the brightest here. She avoids sugar-coating reality but she also manages to sidestep the melodramatic. It’s a definite balancing act and her self-control bodes well for a future with bigger films (if she so chooses).
What starts as a sweet but typical underdog comedy quickly proves itself to be so much more than that. Shades of My Girl and Dead Poets Society weave their way through a landscape (both geographical and social) that remains unknown to most of us. Important issues and attitudes intertwine with sharp and sunny dialogue, and a light is shone on a divide that most likely goes unnoticed in the continental United States.