Unwanted jobs threaten to become a tradition for the Jones family at the start of “Miss Juneteenth” where Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) can be seen scrubbing the toilets at Wayman’s BBQ, a date that no one saw for her 15 years earlier when she was crowned as a pageant queen in the same town where she is now. She isn’t too proud to do whatever it takes to put a roof over her head and her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), taking on a part-time job at the local morgue applying makeup to corpses when she isn’t at Wayman’s and money’s running even tighter than usual since it’s that time when Kai can follow in her mother’s footsteps, now in high school herself and thinking about college where the scholarship that accompanies the crown could really come in handy. However, in Channing Godfrey Peoples’ magnificent feature directorial debut, there’s a significant difference between the future that Turquoise envisions for Kai and the one she sees for herself and as the latter practices performing the same Maya Angelou poem to recite and go through the same dining table etiquette lessons as the former once did, the familiar terrain for the mother and daughter becomes refreshingly uncharted dramatic territory.
Centered around a graceful and magnetic central performance from Beharie, “Miss Juneteenth” takes place in the outskirts of Fort Worth where there’s little room to move, but everyone seems to be grinding, no one harder than Turquoise, who would rather forgo electricity for a night if it means doing something special for her birthday. She gets only limited help from her estranged husband Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), who still comes by occasionally to spend the night even if he tries his best to avoid the difficult conversations about money being tight that are inevitable in the morning, and after having Kai at such a young age, she can’t ask her ultra-religious mother to watch over her granddaughter without consequence when she goes to work. Peeples can simply cast her camera on Beharie and Chikaeze to see the psychic toll this has, but the vicious cycle of living close to the poverty line is illuminated in quietly devastating ways in the filmmaker’s beautifully understated script, admiring the strength it takes to persist without ignoring the often arbitrary and fundamentally unfair causes behind such instability.
Intriguingly, Turquoise’s insistence that Kai apply herself to a pageant she clearly doesn’t want to only adds to the stress in the house, and watching her overlook who her daughter’s becoming in favor of who she wants her to be becomes a part of a larger generational story that Peoples builds to great power. What Turquoise can’t see is indicative of the considerable clarity that Peoples brings to every character in “Miss Turquoise,” all driven to achieve their own version of success, but having different ideas of what that is and how to get there. The fact that there will be a clear winner in the Miss Juneteenth pageant likely explains why the event seems to hold less and less interest to Peoples as the film wears on, but every little victory on the way there seems big and what appears to be a small slice of life presented without much fuss is the work of what seems like a major new filmmaker.