Review: The flavorless ‘Juniper’ does boast a superb Charlotte Rampling in a thankless role
The well-acted, well-intended family drama “Juniper” is inspired by the true-life experiences of first-time feature writer-director Matthew J. Saville. So why doesn’t it feel richer and more lived-in?
There’s little new about the setup of the crabby older person forced together with a resistant youngster only to surmount their mutual disdain and form a life-changing bond. We’ve seen it in countless movies: “True Grit,” “On Golden Pond,” “Scent of a Woman,” “Gran Torino” and the recent Olivia Colman starrer “Joyride,” to name but a few.
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As such, much about the 1992-set “Juniper,” which pits salty, gin-guzzling, ex-war photographer Ruth (Charlotte Rampling) against her angsty, self-destructive, 17-year-old grandson, Sam (George Ferrier), feels familiar and predictable. This wouldn’t automatically be a problem if the pair’s journey grew in deeper, more involving and plausible ways. But Saville too often skims the surfaces of his characters, substituting traumatic concepts and plot devices for narrative logic and truly authentic, compelling emotion.
To wit, Ruth starts off as such an inexplicably monstrous figure — cursing, growling, demanding, hurling highball glasses at Sam’s head (and wounding him) — that her switch to more acquiescent soul-searcher feels like an impossible leap. With her wartime past, supposedly brilliant career and fiery independent streak, she’s a potentially fascinating character. And the superb Rampling plays her for all she’s worth; it’s wonderful to watch such a pro in action. But the veteran star’s outsize talent far outweighs the thin material.
That Ruth (being Ruth) would have chosen to travel halfway around the globe from England to recuperate from a badly broken leg with her estranged, widowed son, Robert (Marton Csokas), and the grandson she’s never met, stretches credibility even after we learn what’s behind her motivation.
In addition, the extent of the damage to Ruth and Robert’s relationship goes underexplained beyond that she sent him away to boarding school as a boy and would never reveal who his real father was. It feels as if hunks of time, especially given Robert’s enduring contempt for her, are unaccounted for.
Citing a desire for his mother to get to know Sam, Robert begrudgingly — yet also unconvincingly — lets Ruth and her nurse, Sarah (Edith Poor), move into his rural New Zealand home. But he immediately flies off to London to, we’re told, deal with Ruth’s finances, leaving the clearly ill-equipped, emotionally fragile Sam to oversee his awful grandmother. It’s terrible parenting (for a father who’s painted as remote but not terrible) as well as a head-scratching contrivance to kickstart the story.
Saville does a better job fleshing out the case of Sam, who’s so undone by his beloved mother’s death that he’s a whirling dervish of conflicting emotions and unbridled actions, some of which get him thrown out of boarding school. Unfortunately, that event plays like another device as does an abortive attempt to hang himself on his mum’s birthday. Still, the handsome Ferrier, with his open, expressive face and strong delivery, proves a worthy sparring partner against the formidable Rampling.
After the film’s tempestuous start (which includes a “meet-not-cute” in which Sam must help his wheelchair-dependent grandma to the toilet), Sam and Ruth find common ground over a shared penchant for booze, even if the flinty Ruth can drink the naïve teen under the table.
It leads Ruth, who’s apparently flush with dough, to throw a beer bash for Sam and his circle of guy friends in return for them cleaning up the home’s neglected garden (the daily view from her wheelchair). Ruth becomes “cool grandma” for a day, even proves her skills with a rifle, and it strengthens her connection with Sam. But the sequence goes on too long and diffuses its point when word spreads among the local kids and an all-night rager ensues.
The film, strikingly shot by Marty Williams, comes together in more sentimental, mainstream fashion than most of what precedes its audience-friendly conclusion. The result, although not an unsatisfying way to take us out, doesn’t feel sufficiently earned.
As for the movie’s curious title, it suggests the juniper berries that are a main ingredient in gin and lend the liquor its singular flavor. If only the film was as distinct.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; AMC Burbank Town Center 8; AMC Rolling Hills 20, Torrance; Laemmle Claremont 5
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