Dear Lemon Lima


Coming of Age in Alaska

Main Actors: Savanah Wiltfong, Shayne Topp, Beth Grant

Writer/Director: Suzi Yoonessi

Being a 13-year-old girl sucks.  Flat out.  Not only is your body changing, but your emotions are all over the place as hormones replace childhood with some sort of twisted version of a cruel fairy tale.  Add in a dose of feeling different from everyone else and you have the perfect recipe for teen angst.  Lots of films take advantage of that naturally turbulent time of life to make a point – about being true to oneself, being nice, being strong, being smart, being something.  Most of them forget that adolescence is rarely a time of great self-discovery, but rather a time for finding some measure of comfort in an uncomfortable world.  Dear Lemon Lima, for the most part, remembers.

Dear Lemon Lima stars Savanah Wiltfong as Vanessa.  Vanessa is hopelessly in love with Philip (Shayne Topp), who breaks her heart by declaring the relationship over in the first scene of the movie.   Vanessa enters his private Alaskan high school the following fall determined to win him back.

So far it sounds like Legally Blonde Junior, but fear not.  Vanessa is as real a little girl as you’re likely to find in a movie.  She’s half Yu’Pik and doesn’t really fit in as the scholarship “native” in the nearly all white prep school she wanted so badly to attend.  She predictably picks up a group of fellow misfits along the way and they in turn compete in a Meatballs-style athletic competition in which they are outmanned on every front.   Vanessa is awkward and skinny, her hair is plain and nowhere in the proceedings does she even remotely turn into a beautiful swan by getting a new wardrobe or a make-over.  Dear Lemon Lima isn’t about becoming popular or getting back at Philip or “blossoming”.   It’s about learning to like yourself, at least a little bit.

Dear Lemon Lima has a whole big load of predictable elements – the new kid outcast, the broken hearted teenager, the mean popular kids, the quirky group of friends, the inevitable stand-off and the life lessons learned through heartache and gym class.  None of that is remotely new or inspired, but this isn’t rocket science, it’s a coming of age movie – some things are universally appealing to the age group and there’s nothing wrong with using a proven template.

The film works both because of and despite its predictability.  Wrapped into the familiar formula is a girl with a unique heritage, living in Alaska, existing in a place most of us will never see or know.  The relative level of meanness is very low – it’s more about how each kid feels inwardly than being badly treated outwardly.  We get a fun and quirky school that loves diversity but has almost none, a principal (Beth Grant) whose innocent enthusiasm for her school programs is infectious and her willingness to try and relate to this strange new child endearing.  We get Melissa Leo playing the incredibly uptight mother of one of the misfits, her usual casually striking good looks replaced by a tight bun and a wardrobe that might as well be a straight jacket.  We get the sweet Savanah Wiltfong tripping over her own adolescence in an attempt to reconcile her feelings about her family with her heritage and everything that means.  And we get some of the strangest athletic competitions you’re ever likely to see.

We also, unfortunately, get one subplot that fails in such a huge way that it almost torpedoes everything that’s right about Dear Lemon Lima.  I have no idea why writer/director Suzi Yoonessi chooses to include a very serious and disturbing episode in this otherwise lighthearted film or why she chooses to handle it without the requisite gravitas.  Without spoiling the movie, let’s just say that one of the misfit characters does not come out on top in the end.  The incident itself isn’t discussed and the children seem to be mostly left alone to deal with the aftermath, which they do in a way that almost makes light of its seriousness.  The issue is far too important to be dealt with casually, no matter what the tone of the movie.  It needed to be left out entirely – it doesn’t fit and is completely inappropriately handled.

I’d love to give Dear Lemon Lima 4 stars for its interesting and quirky locale, terrific performances and focus on something other than looks and popularity.  But I’m knocking it down to 3 due to an overly serious subplot that’s handled very poorly and should never have been included.  Be a little careful with sensitive younger teens – they might not understand the significance of that episode or the inappropriateness of handling it so lightly.

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