Tribeca 2018 Review: LEMONADE, Male Toxicity Contaminates the Promised Land
Romanian filmmaker Ioana Uricaru's drama is her fiction debut.
While the original craze around the Romanian New Wave may have oozed into a clinical death, Romanian cinema itself still stands proud.
It reminded the world about being alive and kicking in 2018 when Adina Pintilie took home the Golden Bear for unorthodox and polarizing docudrama Touch Me Not. The year has just begun and Pintilie was not the sole Romanian filmmaker introducing her latest oeuvre in Berlin. Ioana Uricaru, a professor at Middlebury College, unveiled her fiction feature debut Lemonade in Die Hauptstadt and now over the pond at Tribeca.
Lemonade originated under the producing patronage of the Romanian New Wave poster boy, Cristian Mungiu. Uricaru collaborated with Mungiu on the omnibus The Tales from Golden Age. Furthermore, Lemonade's lead, Malina Manovici, had her previous (and only) acting experience starring in Mungiu's award-winning Graduation. Therefore, the Romanian New Wave's origins reside in the DNA of Lemonade, though its formalism is mitigated by different influences.
Lemonade follows the doe-eyed Mara (Manovici) as she navigates her new life in the U.S. as a nurse. Leaving Romania behind in a bold stab at a better life, Mara experiences the usual tribulation of an immigrant. Uricaru wedges the plot between the arrival of Mara´s son and the formalities of acquiring a green card. Mara manages to get married to an U.S. citizen, Daniel, her former patient, in a suspicious stroke of luck just before her work permit expires. This coincidence does not go unnoticed by an immigration official, as he treats her case with increased scrutiny, although biased, since he uses it only as a leverage for his personal benefit.
The plot's timeframe remains pretty tight over the course of a day as events and issues keep overwhelming Mara, leaving her usually submissive personality anxious and wondering about the prospects of a new life. Mara becomes confused by the immigration official's questions, unveiling more from her husband's opaque past, however, her husband´s past turned out not to be the issue. Trying to get her son into a school, maintain a job, a husband and score a green card, all while raising more funds for living expenses by selling a house in Romania, throw Mara into an intensive whirlwind of traumatic events where her integrity and dignity are being threatened.
It's hard to speculate to what extent does Mara mirrors Uricaru´s own experiences as an immigrant trying to establish a prospective life, however, those sentiments emerge as strong motifs, especially in the current nationalistic and nativist climate. Lemonade's art production designer and location scout did a great job evoking the picturesqueness of Americana, despite the fact that the film was shot around Montreal. In an emulation of the domestic customs, Mara and her son have a breakfast in one of the familiar bistros that proliferate in exported American iconography, painting a very precise image of what a textbook life in the U.S. looks like.
In the drama that does a balancing act between psychological and social tensions, the protagonist appears on the receiving end of discrimination, not only because of her status as an immigrant, but because of her gender as well; she feels the wrath of male toxicity in the promised land. Both agents, Daniel as interior and the immigration officer as exterior, lash out at Mara in a surprising turn of events. While the immigration officer harnesses lust to compensate for his own insecurities, the lack of lust nudges Daniel to a violent outburst against his wife, propelled by his own insecurities. The fate of a woman is shaped by male insecurities; failing to comply with socially-enforced expectations of masculinity opens a door to another current arch-topic.
Uricaru disembodies the over-romanticized idea of the American dream, proving the quality of life or a constant barrage of obstacles won´t necessarily change with a geographical shift. Moreover, she manages to make Lemonade (the title most likely referring to the platitude of making the most out of accessible resources no matter how inept they are) even more topical due to its wide angle and strong political echoes in the zeitgeist-y mould.
Lemonade appears to be an exported Romanian New Wave film shrouded as an U.S. indie, although never ashamed of its Euro genetics. The script, co-written by Uricaru and Tatiana Ionascu, sees a woman struggle (and yes, make the most of it, albeit in non-opportunist manner) in the current socio-political and economical configuration in a civil drama dominated by Manovici´s performance and side criticism of corrosive patriarchy.