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If my first batch of Tribeca movies featured a lot of woodsy scenes, Clementine (Grade: B-) occupies a whole woodsy subgenre: the Two Women in a Cabin movie. Another title for this obscure-ass video shelf, Always Shine, premiered at Tribeca a few years ago; another, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, was his first time giving Elisabeth Moss a starring role, an uncomfortable prelude to their current collaboration Her Smell. Clementine, Lara Gallagher’s feature directing debut, doesn’t derive its tension from two women who are ostensibly close friends but secretly ready to maybe throttle each other; Karen (Otmara Marrero), unlike the characters in those other two movies, admits at the outset that she just wants to be left alone. Then again, she has a weird way of showing it: She breaks into her older, imperious-sounding ex-girlfriend’s vacation home, and decompresses from their recent break-up.
Her solitude is disrupted by Lana (Sydney Sweeney), a girl-next-door of indeterminate door. She shows up asking Karen, a stranger at least five or six years her senior, to drive her around and help find her lost dog. Karen both doubts the existence of this dog and agrees to help, and for the rest of the movie, the two women circle each other with uneasy fascination and sometimes flirtation. Gallagher takes her time, and never goes into full-blown psycho-stalker territory; Clementine often feels like a movie about two women deciding whether or not the other is a stalker, an object of obsession, or something in between. The film has a short-story quality that drags, a little, at 90 minutes; written out at 25 pages, this might be masterful (and would probably seem a lot more eventful). But I admire its quiet precision, even if it its outlines look a little thinly sketched.
There’s a similarly uneasy quality to the relationship between the two central women of American Woman (likely to underdo a name change, as it shares a title with an upcoming and unrelated Sienna Miller film). This American Woman (Grade: B-) has an impressive pedigree: It’s an adaptation of the Pulitzer-nominated Susan Choi novel, written and directed by Semi Chellas, a Mad Men staffer, fictionalizing the story of kidnapper-turned-radical Patty Hearst. Sarah Gadon takes the Hearst-ish role, while Hong Chau plays a radical-in-hiding hired to look after her. She’s also supposed to encourage ringleader Juan (John Gallagher Jr.) and his partner Yvonne (Lola Kirke) to put their experiences down on paper, to self-publish and further their cause, but good luck with that; the pair is antsy and unfocused.
A bond of sorts develops between Gadon and Chau, and Chau is especially terrific as a radical who has grown accustomed to containing and managing her emotions to survive. In just a few movies (she was great in the underappreciated Downsizing), she’s become an expert at showing women working, pushing through their personal feelings to get shit down. But the movie oddly elides a lot of the pair’s one-on-one time; they aren’t isolated from the other major characters until the movie is nearly over. American Woman has an ambiguity, sense of place, and performances worthy of Mad Men, but there’s something frustratingly elusive about it. It doesn’t make a clean break from its real-life inspiration, and winds up feeling like a docudrama even though the characters are made up. But Chellas and Choi are both artists to watch.