As Sam (George Ferrier) leaves his boarding school for home he has an immense sense of apprehension. His father, Robert (Marton Csokas) is picking him up, and as he gets into the backseat of the car he’s met by a case of gin. It’s just enough to get his alcoholic grandmother through a couple weeks, he’s informed. Sam has never met her, but is already forming opinions and he’s not overly thrilled that this stranger is going to be occupying the same room where his mother recently passed away. There are painful memories contained within the walls of his childhood home, and Sam is still grieving and struggling.
Sam is determined to do the bare minimum. He has no interest in helping this woman who has seemingly had no interest in him his entire life. Ruth (Charlotte Rampling) has come from the UK with her nurse (Edith Poor) in tow, convalescing after a broken leg has relegated her to a wheelchair. While it’s made quite clear that Ruth was a spirited woman at the best of times, her being trapped and reliant on others has soured her demeanour even more. As she rings the buzzer to alert the house to her needs, the sound cuts through the solemn silence with blistering intensity. The sound, like the woman who wields it, cannot be ignored.
As Sam explains to Ruth, his role in her care is to provide her basic needs. For Ruth this includes helping her move about the house, getting her food, and making her gin just right, never ever watered down. The two stubborn individuals, both grieving in their own way for different reasons, embark in a battle of wills. Yet, seeds of a new relationship between grandmother and grandson are planted, and eventually the two find in each other exactly what they need to heal.
Writer-director Matthew J. Saville makes his feature debut with Juniper, a family drama that draws loosely from Saville’s own memories of his grandmother. There certainly is no new ground broken with this film, but it is solid enough and shows promise for the first time director. Juniper may follow a predictable path, but its composition is sound and mostly satisfying. There are some themes that don’t get the chance to fully develop in the writing, such as Sam’s eventual reconciliation with his own father, or his suicidal ideologies that seem to somewhat resolve too easily. Yet, the native Kiwi, who rightly relishes in showing the beauty of the New Zealand countryside as the backdrop for his story, creates a film that largely still hits its emotional marks.
Much of this is due to a fantastic performance by Charlotte Rampling. The Oscar nominee is perfectly cast as the cheeky and delightfully cantankerous Ruth. Without her, Juniper would fall flat. It’s a perfect example of how one performance can truly elevate a film and if nothing else Rampling is the reason to watch this one. Ruth is a woman who has seen things, done things, and whose experiences have shaped her being, and who still yearns for adventure. Though, she’ll settle for one more great love affair, she divulges. Rampling makes her interesting and instantly likeable for all of her quarrelsome demeanour. She is Juniper‘s success.
The other players in Juniper are really just trying to keep up with Rampling with varying degrees of success. George Ferrier isn’t helped by the fact that his character of Sam isn’t really all that likeable, especially initially, as he sulks and wallows and is rude in stereotypical teenaged style. Once Sam and Ruth find a rhythm, Ferrier also seems to find his, but he is overshadowed by Rampling’s magnetism. He is just a gateway to Ruth’s more interesting character.
Juniper berries are the main ingredient used to flavour gin, Ruth’s drink of choice. It’s a hardy plant, stubborn, able to withstand harsh conditions, putting down roots wherever it finds itself. The berries themselves are spicy and strong. Juniper is therefore the perfect title for a film whose central character is just the same. The film isn’t perfect, but Saville creates a strong debut, mostly because that character lets the light into his dark story. By its emotional conclusion, Juniper will likely win you over. It truly flourishes when it is less coming-of-age and more commentary of age. Different generations can certainly learn a lot from each other, and we should all embrace that opportunity.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: Drama, Family Drama
- Release Date: 2/24/2023
- Directed by: Matthew J. Saville
- Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Edith Poor, George Ferrier, Marton Csokas
- Produced by: Andrew Mackie, Angela Littlejohn, Desray Armstrong, Mark Chamberlain, Richard Payton, Thierry Wase-Bailey
- Written by: Matthew J. Saville
- Studio: Celsius Entertainment, Fulcrum Media Finance, Sandy Lane Productions
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