While interning in Los Angeles a few summers ago, I was horrified by the size and the plight of the city’s vast homeless community. I vividly remember how my father, who lives in India, responded when I told him about it: “There is poverty in America?!” he asked incredulously. It’s one of the several disillusionments my parents have experienced while I’ve lived in this country as an international student.

These instances were on my mind while watching Ioana Uricaru’s feature debut Lemonade: a stringent socio-realist drama about a Romanian immigrant in the U.S. who goes through hell in the process of applying for a green card. At one point in the film, after having endured a series of disgracements and setbacks, she tearfully says to her friend, “What will they say back home, if they found out?” The friend replies: “To hell with them and their America.” It’s a razor-sharp acknowledgement of the quasi-illusory America that exists not just in the minds of its own citizens, but also in the cultural imaginary of the world — of people like my parents, who grew up believing it to be an aspirational haven of liberalism and prosperity. It’s a neocolonial myth fed by American exceptionalism and imperialism, and it often crumbles dishearteningly for those that come here and are subjected to rampant xenophobia.

Lemonade is produced by Romanian New Wave auteur Cristian Mungiu, whose brilliant 2016 feature Graduation dramatized the corrupt and self-destructive lengths to which a Romanian doctor goes just to ensure that his daughter attends an English university. Employing a similarly gritty, naturalistic approach (although with less stylistic precision than Mungiu), Uricaru explores what the other side of that coin — the lengths one must go to stay in the West once you get there — look like for someone motivated not by aspiration, but sheer economic desperation.

When the film introduces Mara (Malina Manovici from Graduation), a nurse working temporarily in the States to provide for her young son, she is vaccinated without her consent during an immigration-related medical exam. Her husband Daniel (Dylan Scott Smith) — an American patient she met and married days before the expiration of her work visa — is furious, but Mara downplays the situation, saying she probably just misunderstood the nurse’s accent. Daniel replies, “Maybe she wasn’t American,” immediately assuming that an accent unintelligible to his foreign wife must be un-American. It’s an almost comical irony, as is his use of nationality to discount someone’s competency while Mara struggles to get a green card.

Through these small, subtle observations — Mara’s barely-concealed disbelief when a cop asks her if Romanian is an “Arabic language;” her tendency to simply say “Europe” when someone enquires where she’s from — Lemonade makes palpable the psychological experience of immigration and the constant, self-effacing guardedness it encourages. The film is also hyper-aware of the double disadvantage Mara faces as a female immigrant; women are unwanted aliens in all male-dominated spaces, it suggests. Mara’s sinister immigration officer Moji (Steve Bacic), although calm and friendly at first, eventually begins to blackmail her, demanding sexual favors in exchange for the green card. After a terrifying encounter with Moji, she returns to retrieve her son Dragos (Milan Hurduc) from a hotel, only to be confronted by cops who submit her to a humiliating interrogation for leaving her child alone. And when she finally musters the courage to tell her husband of Moji’s intimidation and assault, he calls her a whore and beats her up. When it rains in this film, it truly pours.

Just when Lemonade starts to feel like an endless inventory of the indignities suffered by its heroine — an impression intensified by Uricaru’s unvarnished, vérité cinematography — the film takes an interesting, thriller-esque turn. Advising Mara to collect some proof of Moji’s abuse, a lawyer delivers the film’s most telling line: “In this country, if you are a victim, you have rights.” The way in which the unrelenting Mara goes about securing those rights — empowering herself using the debris of her disempowerment — is both heart-wrenching and hopeful. It’s far, far removed from anything resembling justice, but when life gives you unjust lemons…

First published on Vague Visages on April 30, 2018