Film: “Juanita” (Netflix); Starring: Alfre Woodard, Adam Beach; Director: Carl Johnson; Rating: ** (2 stars)
There is something supremely sad about meditation on womanhood and female empowerment went awry.
“Juanita” means well. It wants us to enter an African-American woman’s home and psyche to get to know why she thinks her life as a single mother has snuffed out her real self. We saw a far more credible version of the African-American dream recently “If Beale Street Could Talk”.
A few months ago I saw Charlize Theron as a mother going bonkers over her newborn baby. Theron’s throbbing angst and bursting bosom blew me away.
Woodard’s attempts to make her character’s singed existence sing in protest seems highly misbegotten. Not her fault entirely. The fey script (adapted from the novel “Dancing On The Edge Of The Roof”) makes Woodard’s griping mother’s part over-stuffed with artistic and emotional baggage.
“Juanita” talks directly to us, the audience, whines, and cribs about being unable to look after herself while tending to three grown-up children (one of them being in jail, naturally, have you seen any film about an African-American family where one or the other character is not in jail?). To add “humor” to the inherently enervated proceedings, the plot brings in Blare Underwood as himself to serve as Juanita’s fantasy man
That Underwood and not Denzel Washington or Will Smith is this embittered housewife’s fantasy-figure speaks volumes about this film’s budget constraints. When you make middling budgeted films, your dreams also get cut down to size.
Then it’s time for action. Juanita takes off in a bus to a self-pointed town on the map to “find me” as though she was lying unclaimed on a lost-and-found shelf. The town where deboards turns out to have only one French restaurant run by a man (Adam Beach) who promptly falls in love with Juanita and they cook happily ever after.
Or something like that.
Hopefully, their kitchen collaboration would be more appetizing than what director Clar Johnson serves up in this undercooked tale of a woman unplugged and remixed.
“Juanita” is a work of almost obsessive mediocrity. It presumes we will swim with the tide of the trite just for its hat-tipping wink at female empowerment.
This self-indulgent stream of consciousness where a home-maker sets off on a journey of self-discovery (when a man deserts his responsibilities it’s called betrayal when a woman does it its self-discovery) has been bequeathed to screen women for decades in Hindi cinema. Shabana Azmi in “Arth” and Smita Patil in “Subah” were far more convincing and compelling than Alfre Woodard who struggles to give an emotional relevance to a plot that shoots itself in the foot from inception.
One exhilarating shot of the heroine standing all alone in a wide open green space with her bag in a deserted town illustrates the nullity of her journey and also the total inconsequentiality of a film trying to find significance in a situation that’s built out of questionable commitment.