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Life, love and 'Lemon Lima'
A conversation with filmmaker Suzi Yoonessi
Writer/director Suzi Yoonessi.

Winner of the Outstanding Narrative Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Audience Award at the Woodstock Film Festival, writer/director Suzi Yoonessi’s Dear Lemon Lima is a warm, tender drama about a young girl’s coming of age in Fairbanks, Alaska.

It’s one of the competition films at the 2009 Savannah Film Festival.

Vanessa Lemor (played by Savanah Wiltfong) is 13 and heartbroken because her boyfriend, the uber–intelligent but impossibly snobby Phillip Georgey, has dumped her. She pours out her feelings in letters to her imaginary friend, Lemon Lima (it’s pronounced LIME–uh, and not like the capital of Peru).

Dear Lemon Lima tells the story of Vanessa’s growth from a slump–shouldered misfit into a strong young woman who accepts – and learns to cherish – the things that make her different.

The plot turns on an annual school tradition – the Snowstorm Survivor Games, which involve the students demonstrating Eskimo tribal skills.

(Because her long–absent father was Eskimo, everyone assumes Vanessa will be a whiz at such things. In truth, she doesn’t know much about traditions at all, and most of her thoughts revolve around Phillip. This will soon change.)

She falls in with a group of “losers,” all of them banished to the school’s dank weight room during gym class because they have no physical abilities whatsoever.

One of these is a young boy named Hercule, whose over–protective parents have convinced him he’s allergic to everything, including air. So he stays inside all the time.

Vanessa, Hercule and the others decide to form a team and compete in the Games – calling themselves Team FUBAR, until the principal realizes what it means and makes them change the name.

Sweet, touching, funny and heartbreaking, Dear Lemon Lima does not go where you think it will, does not end the way you’d expect.

We spoke with Yoonessi by e–mail this week, while she was screening her film in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

How did you get such natural performances out of children?  Was it a challenge finding your young cast?

Suzi Yoonessi: I worked with casting directors Meg Morman and Sunny Boling to assemble a cast of provocative, young actors with an incredible emotional range.  My first concern was building trust with the actors.  I let them know that I wanted to craft the performances in the film together, as colleagues and friends, so I never patronized them because of their young age – some of the greatest moments and lines are improvised.  I believe it’s important to encourage young actors to trust their instincts, so the performances come from an honest place and don’t feel affected.  My job was to help each actor make a discovery and find a piece of themselves in their characters.

I worked with production designer Kay Lee to create a candy–colored environment that captured the magical spirit of Dear Lemon Lima, so the actors were working in a space that captured the tone of the film.

The greatest casting challenge was finding an Alaskan Native teenager to play Vanessa Lemor. The film had a very modest budget, so we couldn’t afford tickets to Alaska. With the support of the local community, fliers and e-mail blasts were circulated, encouraging Alaskan Native girls from all parts of Alaska to upload audition tapes to YouTube and attend a local casting sessions. The final two girls were flown to Seattle, so I could work with them for a couple of days. Savanah Wiltfong had a fiery strength and seemed to be very in touch with and proud of her “inner fubar.”

As a writer, how did you put yourself so accurately into Vanessa’s thoughts, feelings and actions? All the things she writes and draws feel so appropriate for that age.

Suzi Yoonessi: Re–reading passages from my rainbow–studded, childhood diary inspired me to create a story that encourages love and kindness.  The voice of Vanessa Lemor is a faint echo that I was familiar with many years ago.  Channeling my inner 13–year–old girl, I built a library of images, stickers and music that informed the artistic vision.  I turned to the mix CD, sticker–clad pages or a stack of my sister’s childhood diaries when I hit any speed bumps.  The writing process was incredibly painful for me (and everyone around me) because I was making myself very vulnerable, letting down walls that I have built for years and exposing myself to traumatic childhood memories and humiliations.

Is Vanessa you? How much of your own story made it to the script? Were you “different”?

Suzi Yoonessi: A couple of years ago, my ex–boyfriend stopped talking to me because he was scared that everything he said would end up in Dear Lemon Lima. He was probably right. I find it’s cathartic to write from life experience. Dear Lemon Lima is a collection of my emotional truths, servicing a story that is essentially about learning the true meaning of heartbreak.

Many of the relationships in the film are autobiographical, plucked from both my own life and the life of those closest to me. My sister’s ex–boyfriend literally said (as it’s repeated in the movie), “Say you are a baker, and you make cupcakes for a living. And then you quit. And then you make them again. And then you quit again.You are still a baker.” Neither of us still really knows what he meant, but Philip Georgey certainly does. Hercules’ relationship with his pet is also autobiographical, drawn from a forced adoption of one of our cats and a rabbit that bit too often rolled into one animal.

Growing up, I was certainly different, being a first generation Iranian American in the suburbs of Buffalo, N.Y.  I faced endless taunting and teasing. When I came home drippy–eyed, my mother was a broken record, scolding me for being overly sensitive. Fortunately, I found a community of people who were “special and different,” so I learned how to embrace my differences and channel my unique worldview and perspective in my work.

I liked that the weight room was sort of like a dungeon where misfits go to die. Did you deliberately shoot it dark and dingy so it would feel that way?

Suzi Yoonessi: Exactly. Most of Dear Lemon Lima is lush and vivid, so my director of photography and I wanted the scenes in the weight room to be a steep contrast with Vanessa’s conventional candy–colored perspective.  Through Vanessa’s eyes, the weight room represents the ultimate humiliation and isolation from her true love, so the bland color palette, so beautifully crafted by our production designer Kay Lee, evokes this mood.

I also liked that the Snowstorm Survivor Games aren’t really the be–all and end–all of the children’s lives, nor of the movie. It didn’t end the way I expected it would. What do you hope people take away, as a message, from the film?

Suzi Yoonessi: My hope is that this family film inspires the notion that every human connection deserves the honesty, love and compassion with which a 13–year–old girl embraces the world. The film is about people coming together and celebrating each other’s differences, not winning, so it was important for the Vanessa to walk away because she chooses the priceless gift of friendship.

From conception, Dear Lemon Lima’s mission is to give girls the confidence to embrace their individuality and express themselves in writing. Over the course of the shoot, Zoe, the adorable 7–year–old sister of one of the lead actors, became Dear Lemon Lima’s set mascot. Bubbling with love and kindness, she embodied the spirit of the film. 

On the last day of the shoot, I gave personalized diaries to each of the young actors. The diaries were passed around like yearbooks, so cast and crew could write in each other’s pages.  Not to be outdone, Zoe also passed around her personal diary. Flipping through the journal, one of my producers saw a familiar “Dear Lemon Lima,” scribbled throughout the pages. 

It felt like everything had come full circle, knowing that my imaginary childhood friend had a new best friend.  cs

'Dear Lemon Lima' screening

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

When: At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 5

Tickets:  $5 for the general public

$3 for students, seniors and military

Free for SCAD students, faculty and staff with a valid SCAD ID