Written by: Robin C. Farrell | February 23rd, 2023
Juniper (Matthew J. Saville, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Set amidst the ever-breathtaking backdrop of rural New Zealand, Juniper follows Sam (relative newcomer George Ferrier), a young man adrift after the loss of his mother. His fractured relationship with his father, Robert (Marton Csokas, The Last Duel), is further strained when Ruth (Charlotte Rampling, Dune), Robert’s mother, arrives for a seemingly arbitrary visit from England. Ruth is wheelchair-bound due to a leg injury and is an exceptionally heavy gin drinker. Sam elects to ignore his new house guest, not least because the room she occupies happens to have previously been his mother’s. With only sparse dialogue and a subtle-but-solid performance from Ferrier, Sam’s struggle is clear; barely coping with the loss in the first place, he’s then unable to deal with this new arrangement or his grandmother’s steely and demanding presence.
When Robert departs for England, however, and Ruth butts heads with her nurse, Sarah (Edith Poor, The Power of the Dog), Sam and Ruth find themselves alone and forced into each other’s company, whether they like it or not. A fracas ensues that leads both— equally stubborn and in pain—to indulge in nearly permanent self-destructive behavior, after which they choose to be friends, instead. It’s a turn that you can predict from the outset but it’s surprisingly earned, especially because of their preliminary brutal exchanges, verbal and physical. What’s more, they change their minds separately, first, then come together as individuals, each willing to start over.
Juniper spends the rest of its time cultivating the relationship between these two. Again, expected, but Matthew J. Saville, in his writer/director feature debut, weaves together a rewarding depiction of familiar territory. Sam takes over Sarah’s project of putting together a photo album of Ruth’s life and we learn, along with him, about Ruth’s many years as a wartime photographer. She has past trauma of her own that she shares with Sam, which, he deduces later, she probably hasn’t shared with anyone else; or, at least, not in a very long time.
The film’s tone shifts but never wavers; this is a pragmatic and almost candid drama at times, with a smattering of dark comedy. But the frankness of the emotional moments makes them hit all the harder and may not fully sink in until after you’ve finished watching. The only downsides here are Robert’s overall minimal screen time and, thus, characterization. A few of the jokes don’t quite land and the ending is also a bit abrupt, but overall, this is a film that manages to be melancholy, irreverent, sentimental, and coarse all at once. Rampling’s performance is reliably impeccable and Ferrier is a worthy and complimentary co-star. He is definitely one to watch.