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Out of This Ghost World

Dear Lemon Lima, (2009)

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Every hit film spawns a few imitators. For your setting, pick a location not frequently shown in movies. Make your lead character peripherally involved in high-school politics. Give them some friends who want nothing more to help further them in their goal. There’s some amusing attempts at physical activity, and broad comedy at the expense of the actors of color. Work in an emotional dance scene. Oh, and don’t forget the repeated drawings on lined paper, frequent use of sign language and even references to tater tots.

In other words, first-time writer-director Suzi Yoonessi’s “Dear Lemon Lima,” is “Napoleon Dynamite” for girls. Vanessa (Savanah Wiltfong) lives in Alaska with her single mother (Eleanor Hutchins). Her absent father is Yup’ik, which qualifies her for a scholarship to the private school attended by her on/off boyfriend Philip (Shayne Topp, alternating his Tom Cruise and Owen Wilson impressions) where she meets a group of equally misfit kids. One of them, Hercule (Zane Huett of “Desperate Housewives”), is her next door neighbor whom she has somehow never met. When she learns the other cliques call the kids like her “FUBARs,” Vanessa is outraged; when she learns what that means, she is incandescent. The only way to show them is to put together a team to triumph in the annual winter sports competition.

The movie manages two original thoughts in its pretty little head: the “iloveyou” graffiti that Vanessa keeps seeing around town, and the way in which the dumb blonde (Meaghan Jette Martin, of “Camp Rock”) is allowed some personality. Although we get tantalizing glimpses of the lives of the other kids in the circle — most notably Nothing (Maia Lee), whose parents run the local funeral home — that just add local and/or ethnic color instead of any reasons to care about them. The winter sports are apparently based on the real World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. Nothing is also Inuit, while Emmaline (Jada Morrison) and Lynne (Taylor Finlon) are both Asian; but it’s Vanessa’s heritage that everyone talks about. Yet her only visible connection to her heritage is a schoolbag which she hates. This is peculiar and unpleasantly tokenistic.

The movie is well constructed with a sherbet color scheme, but most of the child actors can’t really act. Should Ms. Younessi have gotten a more experienced director in? Beth Grant as the uptight principal is immediately recognizable in her stock character, but she has nothing to do. It’s Melissa Leo, with about four scenes and a pair of oversized glasses as Hercule’s uptight mom, who steals the entire movie.

Between them, Mses. Grant and Leo demonstrate that excellence in acting can only go so far. To have a good movie, it’s also necessary to have talented actors, a decent script and — most importantly — some fresh spark we haven’t seen before. Whether it’s a new pretty face, little-known sports or an attempt to show teenagerdom from a female perspective, it’s got to do more than pastiche a big hit from five years ago. Sadly, “Dear Lemon Lima,” is like most teenage poetry: desperately important to its creator, worthy of polite attention by the creator’s friends and a cringing embarrassment to the rest of us.


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