Written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, a former beauty queen and single mom prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant. Starring: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes, Marcus M. Mauldin, Liz Mikel, Akron Watson, Phyllis Cicero and Lisha Hackney.
There’s a quality to the film that’s immediately endearing, it opens on a palpable note of sadness or even melancholy and from that moment on Nicole Beharie creates such a compelling air to Turquoise, she’s inherently hard-working, honest and likeable. That’s where the heart of this film lies, it creates such a hometown, close community atmosphere that holds so much support and love that her struggle doesn’t feel desperate or grim, it simply feels like a woman doing the best she can by her child, to give her the life she never had. That’s the thing that perhaps can be held in the highest regard with this film, it doesn’t try to cheapen itself with melodramatics or some forced attempts at grit; countless people are out there living day to day like Turquoise but it doesn’t mean they’re living in a dark or depressing existence, they’re just doing what they have to do to survive and getting on with it.
Beharie’s performance as a whole is so wonderfully understated, she only has the briefest moments of letting her emotions out and they’re superb to watch. Her chemistry with Alexis Chikaeze playing her daughter Kai is effortless, the two have such a lovely unspoken understanding, Kai may be trying to breakaway from what her mother wants and to forge her own path but you can always see the strong relationship that lies beneath; it’s surprising that it’s Chikaeze’s first role. Kendrick Sampson also slides so easily into the deadbeat dad role, forever making promises but never coming through when you need him, he also has a great chemistry with Beharie which creates that classic first love relationship, that you can never quite let go of. The relatively unknown Akron Watson is another nice addition, his role is fairly brief but his character’s relentless interest in Turquoise is genuine and generous.
Peoples’ writing hits a lot of familiar themes but brings them through in an original way, it may reflect fragments of stories that you’ve seen before but it feels entirely new. It particularly captures the classic toxicity that comes with a pageant world, with the passive aggressive behaviour and sly jabs but like the rest of the film it does so in a subtle way, they don’t start slinging insults or punches, they’re brief but effective moments. The same goes for its handling of the mother-daughter relationship, if this were your average film they’d be having shouting matches but it’s much more mature and despite their slight disagreements, there’s a constant loving and mutual relationship between them. Its exploration of not wanting to follow in the footsteps of your family is similar to what’s been done before, but again because of that much more respectful relationship between Turquoise and Kai, it’s not pushed too hard or as if things are being overly forced on Kai, it feels as though she, at least in part, understands that her mother is simply trying to give her a good life. All of which plays out extremely well paced, there’s no lulls to the story, it’s continually moving forward and having something to say which makes for a very smooth and captivating viewing.
The directorial style at use here almost sneaks up on you, it starts out relatively simple but as things move forward you can start to see all of its intricacies and the way that it beautifully brings through potent imagery. The direction creates quietly powerful moments, there are several shots that linger for just a second or two and when they hit, you’re struck by the depth of emotion that they’re portraying and it’s a wonderful thing to behold. It’s a film that carefully picks its moments to really pack a punch and it’s incredibly satisfying when it does. The emotional undercurrents are always present but they break through the surface at the perfect times to really get the point across.
Miss Juneteenth is a masterclass of subtlety and heartfelt drama, it’s endearing, wholesome and incredibly down to earth. Peoples’ writing and direction are powerful, understated and extremely compelling, rarely is a drama so sincere and earnest in telling a story of struggle, avoiding any need for melodramatics or tragedy. It hits a great deal of familiar tones and themes but impressively does it in a completely original manner. Beharie gives a picture-perfect performance that highlights what a talent she really is, with great support from the up and coming Chikaeze. There have been some incredible feature debuts in the last couple of years and Peoples has rightly earned her place among them with this wonderful, charming and heartfelt drama.