Miss Juneteenth (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): She lives and dreams through her daughter

“Miss Juneteenth” is a plain but heartfelt drama about a hard-working mother who lives and dreams through her daughter. While this is surely a familiar type of tale to you especially you are a seasoned moviegoer like me, the movie shows considerable sincerity and sensitivity in its caring presentation of story and characters, and you will come to root for its resourceful and strong-willed heroine more than expected, while also moved by the deep emotional bond between her and her daughter.

The story mainly revolves around Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), an African American single mother who has lived with her adolescent daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) in Fort Worth, Texas. As shown from the occasional brief flashback scenes in the film, Turquoise was once a promising teenage girl as the winner of a traditional local black beauty contest named Miss Juneteenth, but that is a mere past for her now, and her daily life is mostly spent on working and earning enough for herself and her daughter. Besides working at a local bar everyday, she also does a part-time job at a local funeral home, but she still often has to make hard decisions as trying to pay bills coming to her house.

And then there comes a time Turquoise has waited for her daughter. Kia is about to be 15, so she is now eligible for the upcoming Miss Juneteenth contest, and Turquoise is already determined to provide a best shot for her daughter as much as she can. She has already saved around 800 dollars for buying a dress to be wore by her daughter at the contest, and she also has a plan for how her daughter should present herself well in front of those judges of the contest. All her daughter needs to do is reciting a certain famous poem by Maya Angelou well enough to impress the judges, but Kai is not particularly enthusiastic as she is more interested in being a dance team member in her high school.

Nevertheless, Kai follows her mother’s demands and instructions without much complain because she understands well how much Miss Juneteenth means to her mother. At the time when she won the contest, everything looked fine and hopeful for Turquoise, and she also received a college scholarship for winning the contest, but, for the reasons we can easily guess along the story, she subsequently screwed up her golden opportunity, and now she reaches for a sort of redemption as actively pushing her daughter toward winning the contest – and a better life for her daughter, of course.

While things seem to be going fairly well as Turquoise and Kai go through the preparation process step by step, Turquoise is reminded again and again of how her life has been disappointing for her. When she has her daughter apply for the contest, she comes across her old competitor, and that woman, who seems to have a much better life compared to her now, does not hide at all her condescending attitude to Turquoise. As she keeps going all the way for the contest, Turquois faces more financial problems, and there is a bittersweet moment when she clumsily attempts to celebrate Kai’s birthday without electricity in their house.

And there are also a couple of small complications in Turquoise’s private life. She has recently let Kai’s biological father into her life again, and, though he is not so reliable as a father or a husband, but she finds herself considering having a new start with him. In case of her estranged mother who has been a devout Christian, she turns out to have a serious personal problem behind her seemingly respectable appearance, and that is just one of many factors contributing to Turquoise’s unhappy life.

As leisurely moving from one narrative point to another, the screenplay by director/writer Channing Godfrey Peoples lets us get to know more about its heroine and her personal struggles, and it also pays some attention to the social/cultural background of the story. We come to learn more about the historical importance of Juneteenth (It is June 19th, by the way) to many African American people out there, and the mood certainly becomes quite joyous in Turquoise’ neighborhood when the Juneteenth week begins with a big parade. Peoples did a good job of imbuing the screen with a vivid sense of people and locations, and I particularly like a small but crucial scene where the owner of that local bar talks to Turquoise on why he has kept trying to run his bar for many years despite many obstacles including gentrification.

We can already discern where the story and characters are heading, and you will not be surprised about what will happen in the end, but the movie continues to hold our attention mainly thanks to the strong lead performance from Nicole Beharie, a wonderful actress who has appeared in a number of notable films including “Shame” (2011) and “Monsters and Men” (2018) since her memorable performance in “American Violet” (2008). While effortlessly embodying her character’s dogged determination and admirable resourcefulness, Beharie is superb especially when she ably conveys to us her character’s emotional conflicts without any ounce of exaggeration, and she is also complemented well by Alexis Chikaeze, who are equally solid during several key scenes of her own in addition to presenting a realistic mother and daughter relationship along with Beharie.

Overall, “Miss Juneteenth” is sometimes predictable to the care, but it has a lot of heart in addition to being equipped with fine storytelling and engaging performances, and it surely earns the quiet but undeniably poignant emotional finale. This is incidentally Peoples’ first feature film, and, considering her competent handling of story, mood, and acting, I guess I can have some expectation on whatever will come next from her in the future.

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