Directed by Clark Johnson.
Starring Alfre Woodard, Blair Underwood, Marcus Henderson, Adam Beach, Ashlie Atkinson, Tsulan Cooper, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Kat Smith.
Fed up with her deadbeat grown kids and marginal urban existence, Juanita takes a Greyhound bus to Paper Moon, Montana where she reinvents herself and finds her mojo.
Coming-of-middle-age movies are a dime-a-dozen these days, yet Netflix feels like a perfect avenue for films like Juanita – that is, thoroughly middle-brow jaunts which wouldn’t post much business at the box office yet still deliver the moderately entertaining goods.
Adapted from Sheila Williams’ novel Dancing on the Edge of the Roof, this drama doesn’t have high-minded ambitions or really any ambition at all beyond telling a grounded, gently heartfelt and entertaining story about a woman seeking change later in her life. But thanks to Alfre Woodard’s amusingly prickly performance, it just about lands on the right side of worthwhile.
Woodard’s protagonist spends her days working a listless nursing home job and fussing over her two ne’er-do-well children, but soon enough, Juanita decides that she’s had it with her humdrum life and seeks something, anything to reinvigorate her joie de vivre. Semi-spontaneously booking a bus ticket to backwater Montana with no intent on looking back, Juanita eventually crosses paths with a local chef, Jess Gardner (Adam Beach), who presents unique opportunities both professional and romantic.
It’s absolutely fair to say that Juanita doesn’t do much to deviate from the well-trod schematic of the existential crisis drama, and so this movie is in every fibre of its being The Alfre Woodard Show. Working from a script penned by her husband Roderick M. Spencer, Woodard takes potentially trite dialogue and scenarios and imbues them with remarkable pep through her animated, laser-focused turn.
Her consistent fourth wall-breaking monologues certainly could’ve irritated in a more insistent film, but the overall tenor here is so relaxed and unfussed that it compliments the movie’s already pronounced “lazy Sunday afternoon” feeling. Helmed with solid low-fi charm by TV director, actor and occasional feature filmmaker Clark Johnson (S.W.A.T., The Sentinel), he knows exactly what his secret weapon is here, and practically glues his Oscar-nominated star to the camera at almost every moment.
Johnson does employ a few unexpectedly surreal, even artful touches, though. A memorable scene transition between a nursing home locker room and the prison where her son is incarcerated, for instance, is nothing more than a practical feat of set dressing, yet it creatively pivots from one fraught situation to the next. By having Woodard move from one scenario to another in a single unbroken shot, Johnson underlines just how unfulfilled her life truly is from A-to-Z.
There’s also a peculiar yet amusing recurring gag where Woodard dreams of well-aged hunk Blair Underwood – usually wearing just an immodest pair of underwear, no less. Were it nor for Underwood and Woodard’s game commitment to the silliness, it could jarringly stick out in such an otherwise down-to-Earth movie.
If there’s any single element which differentiates the film from so many other dramas of the same stock, however, it’s the romance between Juanita and Jess. Because let’s face it, when was the last time you saw a Hollywood movie match an older black woman and a Native American man together? And yet, it’s admirably not something the film fetishists or depicts as Special, confirmed by Woodard and Beach’s palpable yet unforced chemistry.
It feels like this drama could’ve gone for the gut a little more keenly in some key areas, but as an at-home viewing option for the middle-aged streaming contingent, Juanita is certainly well-made and just compelling enough for all of its mere 90 minutes.
Veteran actress Alfre Woodard clearly deserves a fiercer streaming vehicle than this, but her typically gripping performance elevates Juanita above its many formulaic trappings.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.