Sunday, February 2, 2020

Sundance with Abe: Miss Juneteenth

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the seventh time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can, as well as video reviews uploaded to YouTube.

Miss Juneteenth
Directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Parents want the best for their children, and, very often, they’re determined to ensure that they are afforded opportunities they didn’t have. This can mean going to college or being permitted to choose their own fates rather than work to support their families out of necessity. It can also mean insisting that they follow the same path but take it in a different direction, successfully claiming the destinies that they wanted to attain but for whatever reason failed to do. Understandably, such pressure can lead to a lack of motivation or an express desire not to go that same route.

Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is known around Fort Worth as a former winner of the Miss Juneteenth scholarship pageant named in honor of the 1865 day Texas slaves found out that they had been emancipated. Things didn’t go as planned from there, and her current job at a local restaurant is far from glamorous. When her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) is old enough to participate in the pageant, Turquoise heaps all her hopes and dreams on her as she tries to put together the money needed for her to participate, relying only minimally on Kai’s father (Kendrick Sampson), who continues to alternately charm and disappoint her.

This film hones in the hometown experiences of its writer-director, Channing Godfrey Peoples, who delivers an intimate and enlightening look at a community deeply rooted in its heritage. Turquoise is widely known for her high school victory, and though she works hard to change her image, she’ll never be able to escape it, and more importantly the fact that her life trajectory brought her right back to where she started. Kai sees little purpose in learning which knife is for salad and which is for dinner, because things like that don’t seem to matter much when the electricity gets shut off because her mother needed to spend money on a dress for her instead of paying the bill. This is both a showcase of a piece of society and a commentary on materialism and true worth.

Beharie delivers a terrific, understated turn as Turquoise, whose smile lights up a room and whose intonations say much more than just her words might. Chikaeze, earning her first film credit, is a wonderful find, full of youthful, defiant energy and a passion for dance. Sampson crafts a complex portrait of a father who’s dependable at times and infuriatingly predictable at others, balancing his appeal with a clear selfishness that explains why he and Turquoise aren’t together. This film is ultimately an affecting family story, one that runs a bit long in the middle but reaches a satisfying and endearing end.


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