Vanessa (the great Savanah Wiltfong) is an awkward, clumsy, and bullied benchwarmer at an Eskimo heritage-promoting high school. In her own words: “I am bad at sports, I don’t have a singing voice, and my mom cuts my hair.” Dear Lemon Lima follows this unlikely protagonist, a cross between My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase and Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Dawn Wiener, as she copes with the general horror of adolescence. There’s the pain of unrequited love, when at the age of 15 one vows to never love anybody else ever again, the disturbing lack of real communication between grown-ups and growing ups, as well as the pressure to embody some ready-made identity that rarely feels like one’s own—exacerbated here by the school’s insistence on the Eskimo-ization of its white-defining students.
Dear Lemon Lima is a quirky beauty of a film with its cotton-candy colors, Miranda July-esque sensibility, and its embracing of alienation as a source of creativity. It has a very particular humor, the kind that triggers a quiet cerebral pleasure, not laughter, with unexpected lines such as “Once I cried for three weeks, my pet monkey died. He had AIDS” and “Mom, Dad, I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’m changing my name legally to ’Nothing.’” Although the film recalls the excellent Wild Tigers I Have Known in its treatment of teenage sensitivity, it’s much more whimsical than melancholy, and much more interested in displacing libido onto the myth of romantic love than the body.
The film begins with Philip (Shayne Topp) breaking up with Vanessa because he needs to focus on school and can’t afford to have her as a distraction. It suggests this will be a story of a girl moping over a boy she can’t have, living off of his absence. Thankfully, what develops is Vanessa’s own story as she tries to construct her personhood out of the tools that were meant to destroy her. Philip quickly becomes a supporting character as she bonds with the club of misfits that gather in the weight room to run away from physical education class, and ends up becoming an inspiration for those who, like her, dared not to conform.