AFI Fest 2018: Lemonade, by Scott Nye
The Romanian New Wave is arguably the last really important cinematic movement, and so far, its chief members have avoided the common call to come make something in America. That leap has now been made by a first-time filmmaker, and is more an attempt to bring Romania to America that a true integration into the local cinema. Ioana Uricaru’s Lemonade finds some of the Romanian spirit lost in translation, but makes for a striking first feature centered on the desperation of the immigrant experience.
Mara (Mălina Manovici) works as a nurse in an unspecified – and largely indistinct – American town. Near the time her short-term contract was to end, she met and began caring for Daniel (Dylan Smith), a landscapist who was injured at work and needs long-term care he can’t pay for. Their relationship isn’t purely built on quid pro quo, but perhaps their rush to marry was. That’s what a sleazy immigration investigator (Steve Bacic) would like to know, anyway. Mara is determined to stay – she’s even flown her son Dragos (Milan Hurduc) in to finally live with her – but the circumstances keep piling up against them.
This is Manovici’s first lead role (and only her second film role at all, following Cristian Mungiu’s 2016 film Graduation), and she quickly becomes the reason to watch it. Like a lot of people, Mara is strong through circumstance and not nature. She wants to be a good wife to Daniel, though he keeps treating her worse and worse. She wants to be a good worker, but opportunities are drying up. She wants to comply with the investigation into her marriage, but the officer’s aim has less to do with finding the truth than finding what he can get out of it, and out of her. She doesn’t find or stand her ground naturally in any of these situations; her determination comes when her natural compliance finds the limits of her safety. Manovici keeps that desperation foregrounded, searching every uncomfortable encounter for a way out, terrified she won’t find it.
Uricaru was mentored by Mungiu, directing one of the segments of the omnibus film he wrote (Tales from the Golden Age) and serving as script consultant on Beyond the Hills. He produced this film, and of all the New Wave directors, his influence feels the most prominent. But at the end of the day, when you’re there on set, you either have the goods or you don’t, and Uricaru mostly rises to the challenge – her shot choices are determined by getting the most out of each set-up without quite rising to the more ostentatious displays Mungiu mounts. Her script, cowritten with Tatiana Ionascu, finds great obstacles in the slightest American grotesquery – buses that abandon you in the middle of nowhere, understaffed and ill-furnished hotel rooms, the omnipresent gun culture – mounting the ways in which Mara feels out of place in found details. Uricaru herself has spent a great deal of time in America, having in fact worked with AFI for part of it, and clearly has accumulated her share of frustrations. That Mara’s difficulty navigating government, social, and infrastructural spaces reminded me of the similar struggles in Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days says a lot about the gap between our supposed superiority and the lived experiences of the poor and working class.
While such thematic and emotional material does translate, the performances don’t quite go so far. Canadian actors Smith and Bacic make unconvincing Americans, a problem greatly compounded in Smith, who is supposed to be a working-class, gun-owning, abusive representative for a certain strain of the toxic masculinity currently plaguing this country, but whose thick Canadian accent betrays him the more upset he is asked to play. Aside from these technical issues, neither actor is particularly convincing in the part, and next to Manovici come across as complete amateurs, despite their considerably longer resumes. Fortunately, we don’t have a scene without Manovici to anchor it, and the desperate thrust of the film still comes through most clearly.