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In the Netflix movie Juanita starring Alfre Woodard (adapted from the novel Dancing on the Edge of the Roof by Sheila Williams), someone always needs something from the titular character. At work, Juanita toils in a dead-end job taking care of patients at a nursing home. Things are no better at home with her two adult children, neither of whom have a job, and her young granddaughter, whom she helps raise. Even her steamy romance-novel-induced fantasies featuring a shirtless Blair Underwood (in a cameo as himself) end with him needing to borrow money from her.
But Juanita tries to do something new with the familiar character of the long-suffering black woman, and sets its lead on a path of self-discovery in the American West. She takes a greyhound to Butte, Montana, and links up with Peaches, a butch-lesbian-presenting truck driver (convincingly played by Ashlie Atkinson) who introduces her to the place where she is to land: Paper Moon, Montana.
While the platonic spark between Juanita and Peaches almost makes you wish this film had been a buddy comedy, the film, with its rom-com intentions, wants us to focus on Jess Gardner (Adam Beach), the Blackfoot Indian and Iraq war vet-turned-chef whose small restaurant serves only French cuisine.
Juanita wants to be so many things: road movie, rom-com, a middle-aged woman’s coming-of-age tale, a verite window into Native American life in the West, a chef’s kitchen drama. But a script that needed a couple more drafts holds the film and its talented ensemble cast back.
It’s not clear who the movie wants to speak to or exactly whose gaze the story is being told from. We’re presumably meant to think this is Juanita telling her story, because the first half of the film routinely breaks the fourth wall with her as a sharp-tongued narrator. But the stale dialogue and heavy-handed exposition dulls the narrative, and it’s easy to tune out Juanita’s narration.
Juanita has come on this trip to “be by herself for a while,” but in no time flat she has transformed Jess’ out-of-touch French menu and bare-bones clientele into more down-home fare that packs the small town watering hole. She comforts him when his PTSD wakes him up in the middle of the night and discourages his drinking. Her oldest son, who is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, is paroled and comes to visit, starting over as a cook in Jess’ restaurant. Juanita changes physical locations, yes, but she simply swaps out one group of people who depend on her for another. Add to this the lack of chemistry with Jess, and the random shouts from townspeople like “Juanita did you get a makeover?!” and we’re left wondering if she’ll ever receive the kind of care she continually showers upon others.
But even though the movie lacks cohesion and offers mostly one-dimensional characters, somehow the watch isn’t as painful as it should be. (Except for the cringeworthy moment when Jess tells Juanita about the black men he served with in Iraq and nonchalantly utters the phrase “I think that’s why I like black people.”)
The place the movie feels most at home with itself is the pow-wow sequence where Jess and Juanita spend the day. When Juanita, in the throes of a panic attack, goes into the ceremonial tent without Jess, the Blackfoot elders tend to her with a spiritual cleanse and healing ritual. Finally, it’s a scene that finds Juanita focusing on herself and her own healing, and Woodard gives us the most vulnerable glimpse of the character that we’ll see in the whole movie.
Later Jess blesses Juanita with a ceremonial feather as he dances in tribal garb at the pow-wow. Not only is it the most romantic thing that happens in the movie, it’s also a clever depiction of how a Native American man lives and moves in the modern day, amid the past and present cultural traditions that shape him, without the scene becoming a performance of “native ways” for a mainstream audience.
It’s a marvel just how many things are happening in the movie that feel like new onscreen occurrences: a deep dive into a Native American community that doesn’t center around trauma; a portrait of a black woman on an Eat Pray Love-esque journey that makes no mention of Christianity; an exploration of the sexual fulfillment of a working-class, middle-aged black woman. Juanita compares herself to Angela Bassett’s character in Waiting to Exhale, but Juanita is very different from that 1995 film. In fact, it’s hard to even think of another film like it, which is the main thing it has going for it. We even get to see the great character actor Elaine Miles (playing a Sheriff named Mountain) in a couple of scenes where she basically reprises her role as Marilyn from the 1990s drama Northern Exposure.
If the main takeaway from Juanita is that it exposes us to a variety of characters we’re not used to seeing interact with each other in places that are also just as rare, it’s a breezy watch that could pair nicely with a tall glass of wine one evening. And, of course, an ageless Blair Underwood nailing every scene also helps considerably.
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Blair Underwood, Adam Beach, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Marcus Henderson, Ashlie Atkinson, Elaine Miles.
Director: Clark Johnson
Screenwriter: Roderick M. Spencer
Executive Producers: Caroline Connor, Alfre Woodard, Clark Johnson
Producers: Stephanie Allain, Jason Michael Berman, Mel Jones
Premiered: Friday, March 8 (Netflix)
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