The engagingly quirky “Dear Lemon Lima” is a trifle, for sure, but it packs surprising resonance and boasts a sweet and memorable visual style. If writer-director Suzi Yoonessi gets a bit too precious at times as she tells the wistful tale of Vanessa (Savanah Wiltfong), a 13-year-old outsider at a Fairbanks, Alaska, prep school, the filmmaker knows how to gently skew reality just enough to offset the excess cuteness.
The title refers to Vanessa’s diary entries addressed to an imaginary friend. But the concocted Lemon Lima starts taking a back seat to the real friends Vanessa finds when she transfers to a new school in pursuit of her fickle love, Philip (Shayne Topp). There, she becomes an unlikely captain for the school’s annual Snowstorm Survivor competition, which is inspired by the actual World Eskimo Indian Olympic games.
Vanessa, who is half-Alaska Native Yup’ik (as is Wiltfong), corrals her posse of misfit pals to play against the more athletic kids, and in the process, reconnects with her tribal roots.
Though it takes a somber — and not entirely welcome — turn, the film mostly stays as bright as its candy-colored palette and allows for a range of effectively idiosyncratic performances by the entire cast, which includes recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo in addition to Elaine Hendrix and Beth Grant as well-meaning, if clueless, adults.
“Dear Lemon Lima.” MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic material and language. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. At the Culver Plaza Theatre, Culver City.