Typified by bright colours, hand-written title cards and contemporary soundtracks, the Sundance indie dramedies of the mid-2000s eventually became quirky self-parodies. Lemon, the debut feature from short film maker Janicza Bravo, attempts to break the mould with some modern updates. The title is written in bougie typography, while the soundtrack utilizes dinner-party classical music. Unfortunately, the spirit of Napoleon Dynamite and Lars and the Real Girl still looms large throughout.
That's not to say Lemon is going straight for goofy quirks. The film stars Brett Gelman as the loud, angry, narcissistic and often undressed Isaac (a role we've seen Gelman embody on multiple occasions). He's a drama teacher and fledgling actor who can't make it work with his visually impaired girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer, who's dedicated to the role despite the fact that it's too often used for cheap laughs).
In his acting class, Isaac is obsessed with Alex, a curly haired impresario played with winning pretension by Michael Cera. His comedic boorishness is the film's saving grace, and suggests the film might go in an interesting direction as Isaac becomes increasingly obsessive over his protégé. But, just when things are getting good, however, we never hear from Alex again.
The film jarringly switches tone as Isaac visits his wealthy family, which includes all of the post-Tenenbaums indie clichés. There's the bumbling, wealthy patriarch, the distracted sister (an under-utilized Shiri Appleby) and jaded brother (Martin Starr) whose wife clowns around without ever saying a word (there are scenes where she breaks plates for no reason). Oh, and as if that weren't enough, there are also creepy twin daughters in identical outfits.
Somehow, Isaac's general terribleness still attracts the attention of the Jamaican-American Cleo (Nia Long), and the two begin a relationship. As such, the film's next act is a trip to a decidedly Jamaican barbecue, where Isaac's racial discomfort takes front and centre.
Lemon suggests a nugget of something interesting when it gets dark — there are scenes where Isaac threatens people with murder, soils himself and even spray paints the n-word on a car. However, rather than offer a bleak, dark character study of a decidedly awful man a la Neil Hamburger in Rick Alverson's Entertainment, Lemon hold back and doesn't commit. Instead, the film pairs those scenes with the colourful indie looks of yesteryear.
Janicza Bravo certainly has an incredible eye for visuals, and there are many excellent shots in Lemon. However, the film's misguided tone renders it a frustrating mess. It's never quite clear why this film is called Lemon, but one is tempted to relate it to automobiles — it looks appealing and promises a lot, but ultimately doesn't work. (Burn Later Productions)