Dear Lemon Lima -- Film Review

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A spoonful of sugar, to say nothing of bright pastel colors and friendly bunny rabbits, helps the medicine go down in the sometimes ungainly but often winning prep school comedy, "Dear Lemon Lima," from writer-director Suzi Yoonessi. Taking its cues from "Juno" and perhaps even "Ghost World," this is another tale of disaffected adolescents who inhabit a world and speak in a language all their own.

It's a heightened literary language, arch and precise, that gives a comic flavor to whatever is being said. It takes a while to adjust, but it's worth it since the film delivers a sweet (perhaps too sweet) story of a young girl overcoming social ineptitude and stigmatization within a prep school caste system.

Yoonessi, a film school grad expanding on a short film that earned her various grants and labs in writing, directing and producing, is firmly in control of this initial feature effort even if one is not always charmed by the bunnies and color scheme. Theatrical possibilities are limited, but as a calling card at film festivals "Dear Lemon Lima" should please those who like making discoveries.

In her first professional role, Savanah Wiltfong plays Vanessa Lemor, a part Yup'ik Eskimo, going through the emotional throes of a difficult adolescence in Fairbanks, Alaska. She doesn't quite know how she fits in, a situation made more acute when her preening, wealthy and self-important boyfriend, Philip Georgey (Shayne Topp, very good), at 14 her senior by a full year, casually breaks up with her at the start of summer vacation.

By the time he returns from a sojourn in France, her obsession over him has grown all the worse, to her mother's distress. Vanessa determines to win him back when she gains a minority scholarship -- that Eskimo heritage counts for something at least -- to his snotty prep school.

Here she finds herself constantly sent to the weight room, a repository of all the school's FUBARs (the cruel acronym for those "Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition"). These include a girl who has changed her name to Nothing, a girl who claims her father is Puff Daddy and 'Nessa's next-door neighbor, a cheerful boy with health challenges and overprotective parents. Her ex's new flame, who also gets dumped, eventually joins the FUBARs.

Vanessa chooses these weight-room buddies to be on her team for the school's Snowstorm Survivor competition, an event apparently based on the World Eskimo Indian Olympics. This diverts the film a bit into "Bad News Bears" territory with predictable results. What tips the comedy though is a tragedy that throws the adolescent experience into sharp relief that magnifies the quotidian concerns that shape the lives of young people.

The heroine writes daily to her imaginary friend, Lemon Lima, which is the narrative clothes line on which Yoonessi hangs the film's episodic events. Vanessa sees the world as an overgrown bedroom with candy hearts and cartoon rabbits. She's still a young girl coping with the onset of hormones and peer pressure that confuse her. The arc of the film is her getting a grip on these emotions and learning to deal with them -- and realizing that Philip Georgey is "a piece of work."

Wiltfong, like her character part Yup'ik, is perfect in the role, but you can't always tell where her personality ends and the acting begins. 'Nessa internalizes the slings and arrows fired her way. She presents the placid facade of one still absorbed into a pastel world, but hard truths do penetrate that surface. She grows into womanhood before your eyes.

Adult roles, including one performed by the estimable Melissa Leo, are all a little strange. They are more adults as young people might view them, preoccupied with the wrong things and patronizing toward their young charges.

The modest production, shot in Seattle, benefits from a strong visual style and the participation of the local Alaskan Native community in getting all the details about Indian dances and competitive events right.

Los Angeles Film Festival
Production companies: Sanguine Film

Cast: Savanah Wiltfong, Shayne Topp, Zane Huett, Elaine Henrix, Eleanor Hutchins, Melissa Leo, Beth Grant, Meaghan Jette Martin, Vanessa Marano

Director/screenwriter: Suzi Yoonessi
Producer: Melissa Lee, Jonako Donley
Director of photography: Sarah Levy
Production designer: Kay Lee
Music: Sasha Gordon
Costume designer: Joy Andrews
Editors: Mara Farrington, Matt Linnell
No rating, 87 minutes
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