Janicza Bravo’s film “Lemon” begins with a black woman’s face on a television screen. “They come in the night, always at night. You don’t hear them coming,” the woman says. “They took my family. They burned my village. They didn’t take me. I don’t know why.”
The camera then pans slowly through a Los Angeles apartment and lands upon a sleeping man named Isaac, played by Brett Gelman, whose crotch is soaked with urine. He wakes up, rubs the pee-stained spot with his hands and sniffs them before jumping up from the couch and frantically attempting to remove his pants without waking his girlfriend.
This introduction aptly summarizes who Isaac is. He’s lame, pathetic, grotesque; a failure by most standards. And yet, as a white guy, he’s removed from any real possibility of danger or harm. The worst fate that could befall him is the banal shame of wetting himself.
“There is this genre of white guy comedy where a 30-something guy is floundering,” Bravo told HuffPost. “But he has a solid group of friends, a really strong family, a romantic partner who supports him, and things generally just work out for him in the end.”
Bravo’s film explores what happens when things don’t magically come together for the protagonist, and what being stuck in a plateau of white male mediocrity looks like. Isaac’s stagnant, cinematic journey takes place over a brief period of time throughout which not much changes. He teaches a drama class, his girlfriend dumps him, he attends Passover dinner with his family and goes on a few dates with a stylist he meets on a set. Isaac starts the film narcissistic, unstable, violent and uncomfortable. He ends up, more or less, the same.
The film is a dark ― very dark ― comedy, full of anxiety and dread. “It’s about facing the dark aspects of who you are,” Gelman said. He and Bravo, who are married, wrote the script together over the past six years. Gelman is white and Jewish; Bravo, who is black, was born in the U.S. and grew up in Panama. They met on the set of a commercial ― Bravo was a stylist, Gelman an actor ― an encounter they reenact, to a degree, in the film.
Despite the one parallel, however, Bravo identifies more with Isaac than with Cleo (Nia Long), the black stylist he meets and eventually dates. “When we were writing the piece we were working through our own big fears,” Bravo said. “One was that we’d wake up 10 years from now and not have a sense of how we got there. Our life would be in a plateau.”
Gelman added: “We hope that in facing the pain we will exorcize those feelings.”
“Lemon” is theatrical, absurd and surreal. As Bravo, who has a background in theater, put it, “It does not exist on the plane that we’re existing on.” Aesthetically, it has a 1970s vibe, emphatic choreography and a strange sense that the whole film, like Isaac’s pajamas, have been stained with urine. It rings “indie” ― a genre that, for the most part, has been resoundingly white.
Bravo uses Isaac to explore issues of race and gender from the vantage point of a white man. She regards whiteness as a race with biases, stereotypes and habits ― not just a neutral palette. “If Isaac were a person of color, he would be destroyed,” Gelman said. “He would not be able to exist on that plateau of mediocrity. He’s the darkness America was founded upon.”
And yet Bravo and Gelman approach Isaac without judgement. His weaknesses, after all, are projections of their own, whether real or imagined. “Hopefully the film makes people feel less alone in their own flaws,” Gelman said. “Our hope is that people laugh at the dread that you might be this person. As Joan Rivers said: ‘Laugh at the dragon.’”
Isaac has quite a few dragons. At the beginning of the film, Isaac is with his partner Ramona, played by Judy Greer, who is blind. She seems disinterested in Isaac from the beginning and eventually decides to end their relationship of ten years.
“I could hit you,” he says, after she says she wants out. “I could suffocate you. I could strangle you. I could cut you up and bag you up and throw you away in the woods in a hole where no one could find you. Do you know how many men have killed their girlfriends and wives? Millions.” Seconds later he breaks down and begs her to stay, and the breakup talk continues.
“There’s a permission for men to behave and go as they please and the women kind of accept it,” Bravo explained. “We’ve created this environment where men can do whatever then ask for an apology and have an out. A swimmer rapes a woman and sort of apologizes for it and it’s like, he has so much promise and should be let off. Isaac is not socialized; he’s like a kid. He hasn’t been told he isn’t allowed to behave that way.”
Isaac’s misogyny also manifests in the acting class he teaches, where he criticizes a student named Tracy (Gillian Jacobs) in a wildly creative and abusive manner, and in the same breath treats his prized student, Alex (Michael Cera), like a god on earth. There’s a running bit where, after class, Jacobs’ character asks Isaac and Alex for help dealing with various car troubles. They never respond, and at one point, the scene cuts Jacobs off mid-sentence.
“In a lot of comedies women play this accessory role,” Bravo explained. “They might as well be called girl, wife, pussy. If a movie does have women talk it’s billed as being ’by girls, for girls!′ and it’s a whole thing. We were also commenting on that.”
After Isaac’s breakup with Ramona, he begins dating stylist Cleo. During their first conversation, upon learning she has a son, Isaac says, “My sister has a black son.” Cleo’s taken aback but not quite appalled. On their third date, she begrudgingly agrees to bring Isaac to a barbecue with her Caribbean family. While smoking a joint with a group of Cleo’s cousins, Isaac says, apropos of nothing, “More welfare are on white people than black people. They make you think it’s the opposite. This is where the resentment in the white community comes from.”
Isaac’s awkwardness is often taken to surreal heights in the film. But his strained interactions with people of color, Bravo said, are all based in reality. “People have said those things to me many times,” she said. “They’ve made weird comments about black women’s hair, about welfare, government and poverty. They’re not exaggerations, because I have lived them.”
“They pour out of him because he’s aware that he’s not in the majority,” she continued. “He’s aware that he is not black in a space that is all black. When that’s happened to me, white people say ‘I have read Coates’ and ‘I have read James Baldwin.’ I’m like, I don’t need that, I’m actually really uncomfortable now. There is a great discomfort about race; people are trying to relate and sometimes they don’t have the tools to.”
“He doesn’t have the tools because he never had to,” Gelman adds. “You don’t need to think of the other in order to thrive in the world, in our country. White is top because white is invisible.”
Bravo finished his thought: “White people think: ‘I am the norm, the other is the strange thing.’ We don’t talk about white culture. Isaac grew up in a world where he hasn’t had to think about who people of color are, what their feelings are. He’s nervous, it feels foreign to him.”
The majority of films ― especially indie comedies ― operate from this perspective, where whiteness is the default and therefore remains unexamined, taken for granted. With “Lemon,” Bravo and Gelman deconstruct whiteness and masculinity without leniency, but still, without judgment.
It’s a similar tactic Bravo takes to calling out Gelman’s occasional missteps in real life ― though his are worlds away from Isaac’s. At a point in our conversation, when discussing discrimination women face in America, Bravo reminded him that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. Gelman changed his wording and thanked her. “Here you go, white guy,” Bravo joked, “you have to admit when you’re wrong and you have to apologize and learn from it.”
With “Lemon,” Bravo and Gelman hope that laughter begets thinking, coping and change, even ― or perhaps especially ― when confronting subject matter that is stressful or ugly.
“We are working very much from a place of our feelings,” Bravo said. “They are anxious and a little bit bleak, sort of like nightmares. But we both laugh a lot. I think it’s a coping mechanism; if you’re not laughing, you’re going to start crying. If you sit with it for too long it becomes a weight on your chest that feels impossible to surmount.”
And that’s how you find yourself in a plateau.
“Lemon” is now in theaters, On Demand, on Amazon Video and on iTunes.