'Miss Juneteenth': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Rambo
A runner-up, but a delicate beauty nonetheless.

Nicole Beharie plays a former pageant winner, whose life failed to maintain its princess glow, focused on carving out a better future for her daughter in Channing Godfrey Peoples' first feature.

The natural luminosity of Nicole Beharie breathes radiant warmth into almost every scene of Miss Juneteenth, and yet it's the lived-in authenticity of her performance that anchors this heartfelt story of a single mother in a low-income, predominantly black suburb of Fort Worth, Texas. Writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples' appealing debut is a tender drama that takes its cue from the central character, bringing humble grace to the struggle of this former pageant queen to project her own deferred dreams onto her teenage daughter.

Imbued with a lovely sense of place and community, this is a low-key film, leisurely perhaps to a fault and dramatically a tad too mellow, though observed with a keen eye for the small details of ordinary lives that elevates the material.

Through the holiday for which the pageant is named — commemorating the 1865 abolition of slavery in the holdout Confederate Lone Star state, two years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — the movie also acknowledges generations of African American women who have strived for dignity and personhood in environments that often hold them back. Precarious access to the American Dream is a theme that surfaces repeatedly, not always with a seamless hand in Peoples' script.

Turquoise Jones (Beharie) is introduced admiring the tiara and buttercup yellow gown in which she was crowned Miss Juneteenth in 2004, not for the first time recalling her happiness as she rode through town on a parade float, waving serenely at the crowds. Far from being a pathetic Tennessee Williams-type figure tethered to the past, however, she's an uncomplaining hard worker. Turquoise pretty much runs a local hole-in-the-wall barbecue and bar joint, where she has saved enough in tips to cover a top-of-the-line pageant dress for her reluctant 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to wear in this year's Miss Juneteenth contest.

The fact that Kai is more interested in trying out for the school dance crew doesn't dampen Turquoise's hopes for her, particularly since the pageant's prize includes a full scholarship to any traditionally black educational institution of the winner's choice.

The classic mother-daughter dynamic is nicely established, with Turquoise endorsing the values instilled in the pageant contestants — of dedication, elegance, etiquette, self-worth and academic achievement — while rebellious Kai is all about finding her own way, not to mention being free to date a boy of whom her mother disapproves.

The hints of bad choices that kept Turquoise from delivering on her promise lend poignancy to the tenaciousness with which she seizes the dream for Kai, even if the drama remains too coy about those mistakes from the past.

Following a rift in the relationship, Kai's auto mechanic father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson, from Insecure), a small-time gambler who shows more love than dependability, is back on the scene, swearing to do right by Turquoise this time. And at the funeral home where Turquoise works part time, her gentlemanly boss Bacon (Akron Watson) makes repeated offers of marriage and stability as the first lady of his expanding business — perhaps the only growth industry in that part of town. In one amusing moment, Bacon turns up at her door in fancy cowboy regalia to escort her to a dance on his horse.

Peoples' screenplay ably channels the sleepy rhythms of small-town life and the obstacles in Turquoise's path whenever unplanned-for expenses arise. We also get a glimpse of her erratic relationship with her own recovering alcoholic mother (Lori Hayes) when that disapproving evangelical falls off the wagon. And there are quiet moments of emotional ballast with her easygoing co-worker (Liz Mikel) and salt-of-the-earth boss (Markus M. Mauldin) at the bar.

The film spends a little too much time ambling along when it should be moving forward, a tendency echoed in the unfussy visual style and music choices. And although the pageant provides a built-in destination, few will fail to see its­­­­ bittersweet developments coming. But the relatively uncommon experience of seeing black women's lives depicted onscreen in a working-class regional environment like this earns Miss Juneteenth a lot of good will.

Whenever Peoples returns her gaze to the intimate bond between Turquoise and Kai, with the push and pull of their relationship, its challenges and rewards, played out with exquisite understatement by Beharie and Chikaeze, this becomes a satisfying portrait of hope and resilience.

Production companies: Ley Line Entertainment, Sailor Bear
Cast: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Liz Mikel, Markus M. Mauldin, Lori Hayes, Akron Watson, Jaime Matthis, Phyllis Cicero
Director-screenwriter: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Producers: Neil Creque Williams, Jeanie Igoe, James M. Johnston, Toby Halbrooks, Theresa Steele Page, Tim Headington
Executive producers: David Lowery, Nate Kamiya
Director of photography: Daniel Patterson
Production designer: Olivia Peebles
Costume designer: Rachel Dainer-Best
Music: Emily Rice
Editor: Courtney Ware
Casting: Tisha Blood, Matthew Taylor, Chelsea Ellis Bloch
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

103 minutes