Movie Review ~ Miss Juneteenth


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A former beauty queen and single mom prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant.

Stars: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes

Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: To many, movies are simply escapist entertainment that are nice distractions from our daily lives.  We live in such tumultuous times with harsh realities and difficult uncertainties, why not check out for an hour or two and leave that all behind to lose yourself in some fantasy – would anyone really blame us?  Then there are those, like myself, who feel that film can also be a mirror of sorts to what is going on in our world and give us insight, however small, into another person’s experience we may have no idea about.  It can’t replicate that experience but if we are cognizant enough to recognize it, we can do our homework and learn more on our own time after the credits have ended.

The new film Miss Juneteenth is a good example of representation to a widely observed holiday that I was woefully uneducated to before seeing the film.  Like I’m sure many of you, Juneteenth was something I had heard about but never really understood the depth of its significance as a holiday to the black and African American communities.  Juneteenth, also known as the state holiday Emancipation Day in Texas, commemorates the date June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved African Americans were finally liberated in Texas, well over two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and it became law.  In recent years there has been an increasing call for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday and a number of organizations now include it as a paid holiday for their employees.  (My company just announced they are recognizing it as such in 2021).  Though Miss Juneteenth was written and filmed before the renewed calls for social justice reform over the past month and is far from a politically charged movie, its release is well-timed and features strong representation throughout the production.

When she was a teenager, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie, Shame) won the Miss Juneteenth pageant in her Texas hometown, a long-standing, high-profile event that awards full scholarships to traditionally black universities to its winners, many of whom have gone on to be prominent members of the community both locally and nationally.  Now a single mother to Kai (Alexis Chikaze), Turquoise makes ends meet by managing a local watering hole and working as a funeral home make-up artist.  As the film opens, the Miss Juneteenth pageant is coming up and Turquoise pushes her shy teenager into competing for the crown, hoping her daughter can win despite the odds being stacked against them both.  Maybe she wants her daughter to win just so she has the money to afford college…or maybe she sees a possible win as a redemption to fulfill the promise she couldn’t when she held the title.

Far from being a simple pageant movie featuring the typical mother-daughter strife throughout, Miss Juneteenth may follow a familiar trajectory on the surface but does so in refreshing ways.  Director Channing Godfrey Peoples is from Texas and is clearly writing from a place she has great insight to.  There’s an air of authenticity throughout, even in the inauthentic way some of the women behave toward Turquoise and Kai, judging the mother for not taking a traditional post-pageant route and letting that influence what they think of the daughter.  An added layer of complexity comes with the relationship between Turquoise and her own mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes), a churchgoing, God-fearing woman that has her own demons hiding in the shadows.

If there’s one place that Peoples struggles with its convincing the audience that Turquoise would put up with some of the men in her life for as long as she does.  The father of her daughter (Kendrick Sampson) seems to be stuck in a pattern of disappointment and it feels out of her independent character for Turquoise to bend to his charms, especially when it begins to come between the dream of a future for their daughter.  Her boss at the mortuary is also pursuing her and that story line is thinly developed…and maybe it’s just because the dynamic between Beharie and Chikaze is so much more interesting that whenever they aren’t on screen together you’re just waiting for their next scene.  Only Marcus M. Mauldin, as the world-weary and wise owner of the bar she helps run, found a way into the narrative that made an impact.

The film is all about Beharie, though, and it’s a performance you aren’t going to soon forget.  An actress that has shown up in smaller but memorable roles in movies and television over the past decade, she hasn’t truly made that big leap yet but this could and should get her into the conversation for major work in the future.  It’s a difficult character to navigate because it would be easy to make Turquoise sharp with pointy edges so it’s a credit to Beharie and Peoples that they’ve given her depth and marked clarity – this is a woman in full control of her situation and isn’t someone that needs to be saved.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Miss Juneteenth isn’t a film leading to a huge climax of anguished realization with a token “Oscar clip” emotional outburst.  Instead, Peoples has sprinkled little gems of scenes throughout the picture, allowing a number of actors to instill some knowledge upon others, the audience included.

Watching to the very end showed how much of a community effort it was to make the film – I can’t remember ever seeing a movie list the hundreds of extras involved in the credits.  Small touches like this, including a tuneful collection of songs for the soundtrack and location shooting add to the charm of it all.  Like I said when we started, if you aren’t familiar with the Juneteenth holiday the pageant celebrates, do you homework before; while the movie gives some background there is more to be known that is important to discover on your own.

Movie Review ~ You Should Have Left


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Strange events plague a couple and their young daughter when they rent a secluded countryside house that has a dark past.

Stars: Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried, Avery Tiiu Essex

Director: David Koepp

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Ever since movie theaters shut down in early April, there has been much discussion over the big summer blockbusters that have seen their release dates shuffled around or delayed indefinitely.  Buzzed about franchise pictures set to make studios millions (billions, potentially) are now waiting in the wings, dependent on a vaccine for the virus that kept audiences in lockdown to emerge.  Because, let’s be honest, no one really feels completely confident about heading into a enclosed space with a bunch of unknown factors still in play.  I sure don’t, that’s for sure.

So instead of heading to the theaters this summer film fans have been doing their movie-going with their remotes and that’s been a boon to smaller films that might not have received the recognition had they had to compete with movies that had a bigger advertising budget.  That’s why for a few weekends a month ago the smaller horror film The Wretched was the number one movie according to the limited figures available…it also helped that the indie fright flick was fairly decent.  The other difference between a movie like The Wretched and the new thriller You Should Have Left is that The Wretched was likely always going to be a direct to streaming film while You Should Have Left had loftier plans from the start.  The Blumhouse production shifted its release from theaters to On Demand and that plan will most certainly help overall, not just because far more people will see it due to a lack of other similar available content but I think it won’t be judged as harshly as it would have been as a theatrical offering.

Adapted by director David Koepp (Premium Rush) from a 2017 novella by German writer Daniel Kehlmann, You Should Have Left follows Theo Conroy (Kevin Bacon, Patriots Day), his actress wife Susanna (Amanda Seyfried, Scoob!) and their daughter Ella (Avery Essex) as they take a few weeks away from her busy filming schedule for a family retreat in Wales.  Theo’s visit to Susanna’s set early on gives us an indication not only of his jealous side but also hints that he’s famous in his own right…and not for anything particularly pleasant.  The house the family rents is nicely secluded and a wonder of modern design, with clean lines and confusing hallways that are easy to get turned around in.  Right away, Theo can sense there’s something off but can’t quite figure out what’s amiss…and a strange visit into town with its peculiar townspeople doesn’t settle his paranoid nerves any.

As is often the case lately, the first hour of the movie contains some genuine interest and sincere head-scratching moments as Theo starts to unravel the longer he spends within the house.  Is it related to his troubled past and has the dwelling awakened a sinister spirit out to reclaim something from him?  Or is his long gestating lack of confidence in the sincerity of his much-younger wife bubbling to the surface at a most inopportune time?  Basically…is he imagining the house is designed to confuse or has he managed to find a rental property built on top of the devil’s doorway?

If only Koepp could have kept up with the suspense, You Should Have Left might have been a nifty little film that truly delivered.  As it stands, it winds up falling apart in short order and disappointingly so.  Koepp has explored similar themes of isolation/seclusion like this in his previous films Secret Window from 2004 and 1996’s The Trigger Effect so this should be familiar territory to navigate for him.  Maybe the problem is Koepp’s adaptation, which as far as I can tell added in cumbersome elements that seems to have taken Kehlmann’s original simplicity in storytelling and weighed it down with more emotional baggage.  Adding that in complicates things and makes the movie accountable for explaining too much…about Theo, about Susanna, about the house and its origins.  Though it’s handsomely made, it’s in that final half hour where precious little makes sense and Koepp loses control of what up until then had been a precise thriller.

It’s good, then, that we have Bacon on hand to sell what at times is a little hard to swallow.  Bacon is such a dependable presence in even the smallest of roles, it’s nice to see him back in a leading role and re-teamed with Koepp after their superior effort, Stir of Echoes, in 1999.  Even if the film starts to go off the rails, Bacon stays on track and resists the urge to overdo things.  (It’s interesting to note, if the IMDb trivia page is to be believed, Nicolas Cage was originally attached to star – I can only imagine how he would have handled some of the twists of the final act.)  I’m glad the script makes a pointed issue of the age discrepancy between Bacon and Seyfried, their 27-year age gap is very much a piece of the puzzle…though it is still awkward to imagine them as a couple.

For a weekend option, I can imagine that You Should Have Left would be a decent choice for those that have exhausted their Netflix and Amazon Prime queues and need a jolt of newer release.  It’s better than a number of Blumhouse productions that have found their way to theaters and while it doesn’t stand up in competition to their slick update on The Invisible Man earlier this year, it’s watchable more often than not.