'Lemon': Film Review | Sundance 2017

An audaciously stylized and darkly comic debut.

Janicza Bravo’s debut feature is a bizarre comedy starring Michael Cera, Nia Long and Judy Greer.

A comedy of embarrassment, discomfort and anxiety that just keeps getting funnier as it goes along, Lemon is a one-of-a-kind treat that, by ending almost too soon, follows the old showbiz principle of leaving ‘em wanting more. A stylized and very stylish piece that becomes an acquired taste after about 20 minutes, Janicza Bravo’s debut feature occasionally recalls the work of the great Jacques Tati in its precision physicality. But the film forges a completely distinctive personality of its own through its characters’ perverse behavior and neuroses, exacting framing and editing, wildly imaginative use of unanticipated music and its unusual ethnic blending, from Jamaican L.A. culture to strife-ridden Jewish family ritual.

Although some will no doubt find it all too mannered and/or off-putting, an extensive festival life should elevate this notably original work to cult status that could pave the way for a specialized theatrical career and home viewing popularity.

The theater backgrounds of Bravo, who grew up in Panama, and co-writer Brett Gelman come through from the get-go, as drama teacher Isaac Lachmann (Gelman), a tall, balding man of extreme moods, is unpleasantly argumentative with everyone except for one student, Alex (Michael Cera), perhaps for reasons with ulterior motives. Isaac lives modestly with Ramona (Judy Greer), a blind woman with plenty of ready excuses to avoid intimacy with her mate.

The film’s opening minutes are downright weird, and not entirely inviting, both because the characters behave in very arch, rude and non-naturalistic ways, but because the aggressive style — the bold compositions, the musical assaults — feels potentially like attention–getting for its own sake. 

In addition to which, Isaac, the central character, behaves in class like he’s Stanislavsky, Max Reinhardt and Orson Welles rolled into one, an imperious sort able to destroy actors with a word. Outside of school he’s a needy, neurotic pussycat, in need of approval or acceptance from anyone, and willing to debase himself to get any kind of job in TV commercials.

Once it becomes clear Isaac is an impossible mess of tangled anxieties who should have been treated years ago, the film begins to settle in as it charts his descent. It takes a while as well to get accustomed to, and then embrace, Bravo’s arresting sense of composition, timing and humor. Some shots are held to the point that they create real discomfort, others connect with one another to startling effect and many others simply reveal an original eye, a wonderfully fresh approach to images. The same goes for the almost unimaginably eclectic musical score.

About a third of the way through, the film settles into a long Passover dinner set-piece marked by almost unimaginably grotesque ill-will amongst extended family members. The venom flows indiscriminately and is dispensed by some actors very good at this sort of thing, including Fred Melamed, Rhea Perlman, David Paymer, Shiri Appleby and Martin Starr. Girls who resemble the twins from The Shining are also on hand.

With the drain leading to alienated oblivion clearly in sight, Isaac manages to attach himself to an attractive Jamaican-American woman (Nia Long). But an afternoon backyard gathering with her family and friends turns out no better than his recent experience with is own relatives.

Depressing as this descent into madness, or some version of it, may sound, Bravo’s stylistic imagination and firm control of a comically absurdist tone produces a film that’s a bracing tonic rather than a downer. Lemon represents a feature debut of unusual assurance and control with a style all its own.

Production companies: Burn Later Pictures, Killer Films, Cyrk
Cast: Brett Gelman, Judy Greer, Michael Cera, Shiri Appleby, Fred Melamed, Rhea Perlman, David Paymer, Gillian Jacobs, Jon Daly, Martin Star, Megan Mullally, Jeff Garlin, Elizabeth De Razzo, Nia Long
Director: Janicza Bravo
Screenwriters: Janicza Bravo, Brett Gelman
Producers: Paul Bernon, Sam Slater, David Bernon, Houston King, Han West
Executive producers: Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Brett Gelman, Janicza Bravo
Director of photography: Jason McCormick
Production designer: Grace Alie
Costume designer: Ariel Goodman-Weston
Editor: Joi McMillon
Casting: Emily Schweber
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

80 minutes