Facing death can force many of us to change our paths in life. Yet when confronted with the inevitable, others grow stronger in their convictions and actions. Death rarely affects a single person, but instead, the small family units where we find our place. Director Matthew J. Saville explores a steadfast woman’s new bond with her grandson with his feature debut. While Charlotte Rampling provides life to the headstrong Ruth, the rest of the cast struggles to find their footing. This makes Juniper something of a standard independent drama.
Juniper follows the destructive teenager Sam (George Ferrier), who lashes out at his father (Marton Csokas) and his boarding school environment. He lashes out at those around him, even when people reach out to him to create friendship. When he returns home with his father, he meets Nurse Sarah (Edith Poor), the primary caretaker of Sam’s grandmother Ruth (Rampling). Ruth suffers from a bevy of medical ailments, many of which she refuses to treat so she can keep the door open for a future relationship. The headstrong Ruth and angry Sam find shared ground, developing a unique relationship.
The success of Juniper rests on Rampling’s excellent performance. She brings her intense style to the screen and elevates the material at every turn. The actress showcases why she’s one of the most talented performers in the world. You can read her mind based on her facial work, but she adds meaning to every word in her performance. She accesses a deep well of emotion and makes you care about the story as a result.
The rest of the cast struggles to keep up with Rampling delivering a tour-de-force performance. The actor who suffers most is Ferrier, who comes across as something of a spoiled child due to the narrative. Ferrier brings emotion and works exceptionally well when paired with Rampling. Yet, in the scenes without her, he feels he’s floating through the sequences, playing every emotion too large to fit in with the natural world around him.
Part of Ferrier’s issue is the generic nature of the boys he befriends. While some cultural elements fit into the story (specifically during a rugby sequence), the characters come across as stock characters. There is very little done to differentiate them outside the group setting, and losing this element of the film does little to give Ferrier a well-rounded person to portray.
Saville does deserve credit for some stunning cinematography. The use of landscapes and sunrise settings adds considerable depth to the film. While Juniper could easily have fallen into a setting that might have drawn comparisons to the stage, Saville attempts to expand his world. Characters use these environments to learn and grow, and Saville uses these moments to allow characters to reflect on themselves. These sequences result in some of the strongest character work of the film, which helps make up for the rote story unfolding.
Juniper suffers from being a bit too predictable in its execution. Despite this, Saville has the talent to shine as a director, and with more substantial material, he could find himself creating a truly great film. His instincts are present, even if this film does not fully work. Expect Juniper to stay in conversation throughout the year, as Rampling’s turn will resonate within independent cinema communities as one of the year’s best performances.