director: Matthew j. Saville (debut)
starring: charlotte rampling, george ferrier, edith poor and marton csokas
REVIEWER: lyall carter
When a self-destructive teenager is suspended from school and asked to look after his feisty alcoholic grandmother as a punishment, the crazy time they spend together turns his life around.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, 2020 was a stellar year for New Zealand cinema. From The Legend of Baron To’a to This Town and Reunion, Aotearoa cinema hit it out of the park. And while there have been some superb home grown films this year, Juniper is head and shoulders above them all. An intimate exploration of family grief and sins of the past tenderly portrayed by a cast led by Charlotte Rampling at the very heights of her acting powers. Juniper is the best NZ film of the year. An absolute must see.
Seventeen year old Sam has been on a self-destructive spiral that could lead to his death. He returns home from boarding school to find his wheelchair-bound English grandmother, Ruth, has moved in. Ruth is an ex- war photographer with a lust for life and a love of the bottle. Sam soon finds himself profoundly confronted by her alcoholic wit and chutzpah. Their first meeting is awkward; their second violent. Things get worse when Sam finds himself stranded alone with her and her nurse Sarah for the school holidays. Both strong-willed characters, a battle of supremacy ensues, enabling Sam to embrace life again and for Ruth to face her mortality.
There used to be a phrase thrown around when I was a teenager: that was good - for a Kiwi film. We’ve long left that sentiment behind as a culture with our world beating cinema craft. Juniper is another example of this; a film that feels like a very Kiwi story with its stunning vistas and cultural mannerisms, but it also feels equally as if it could have quite easily existed somewhere in some little British hamlet with the attention to cinematic craft and the acting talent on display.
Juniper also feels like a West End play up on the silver screen in the best possible way. The audience isn’t treated as passive consumers with everything spelt and worked out for us. We witness enough of the grief and family secrets to be emotionally hooked all while not being emotionally snookered, caught up in the sentimental, emotional tropes that these kinda narratives can head down. We gain a brief snapshot of these characters' lives, and while we discover part of their stories, secrets remain. It’s very human.
Some of the supporting characters are either underwritten or underused to make way for Sam and Ruth. Marton Csokas slips into this camp a little but boy does he have a commanding presence and voice and more than makes the most of the scenes he does have.
George Ferrier gives a stunning performance as Sam that should gain him international attention and acclaim which is richly deserved. The character of Sam is the very heart of the film and the temptation would be to play the role in a highly emotional and raging way but Ferrier plays it with such maturity, stillness and innocence. A new talent is very much on the rise.
Charlotte Rampling also gives a masterclass of a performance, commanding and formidable, with charm aplenty, all with a youthful glint in her eye. An actor at the very peak of her craft.
An intimate exploration of family grief and sins of the past tenderly portrayed by a cast led by Charlotte Rampling at the very heights of her acting powers. Juniper is the best NZ film of the year. An absolute must see.