THE STORY – As punishment for his troublesome behavior, a teenager (George Ferrier) is forced to help take care of his alcoholic, feisty grandmother (Charlotte Rampling) – who he has never met – who used to be a war photographer. Ruth, the grandmother, is currently wheelchair-bound, and the grandson, Sam, is grieving the recent loss of his mother. Slowly but surely, Sam and Ruth connect and find that they have more in common than they’d thought.
THE CAST – Charlotte Rampling, Martin Csokas, George Ferrier & Edith Poor
THE TEAM – Matthew J. Saville (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 94 Minutes
“Juniper” is the directorial debut of Matthew J. Saville – who also wrote the film – and was filmed in and takes place in New Zealand. Saville based the main character, Ruth (played by Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling), on his own grandmother towards the end of her life. Rampling is clearly the highlight of this film, which makes the best use of the “45 Years” star’s dynamite screen presence, even though she is technically not the main character.
Sam (George Ferrier), a 17-year-old who has grown up in New Zealand, is continually getting into trouble and has been sent to an all-boys boarding school by his dad (Martin Csokas). When he is suspended, he is forced to help take care of his grandmother, who he had previously never met. His grandmother, Ruth, is an alcoholic, feisty woman who used to be a war photographer and is now confined to a wheelchair, relying on a buzzer to help her do things like go to the bathroom and make the watered-down gin she keeps beside her. Sam is grieving his mother’s recent loss and is suicidal and on a path to self-destruction. He reluctantly assists Ruth’s nurse, Sara (Edith Poor), who traveled with her from England. The first meeting between Ruth and Sam is inherently awkward, as is to be expected, and their connection is a slow burn that you can see from a mile away.
Certainly, we’ve seen this story before, one of complicated family dynamics and two people who seemingly despise each other initially who end up finding common ground and coming to care for each other deeply. We’ve seen these characters countless times, and “Juniper” is hardly the last time we’ll see them. The story doesn’t break new ground, but the script is filled with enough sharp dialogue to keep the film from being tedious. There are plenty of scenes and moments in which you can say, “I saw that coming!” – so many, in fact, that you may wish there were more surprises than there were.
Rampling’s Ruth is just as prickly, nosy, and feisty as you can imagine, and the award-nominated actress easily chews the scenery. Even though the character is extraordinarily unlikeable, demanding, and sometimes inappropriate, Rampling can still make her charming, funny, and sympathetic. Only a performer of her caliber would be able to make this kind of character work in the way in which Saville has intended and to keep this type of hackneyed role more interesting – and less like a caricature – than it might be with another actor in her shoes. There’s also something to be said about the non-judgmental manner in which Ruth’s alcoholism is presented; instead of being a crutch, it’s just an aspect of her personality. Poor does a fine job as Ruth’s longtime nurse who doesn’t put up with any of the older woman’s BS, and the nurse ends up becoming an honorary member of the family. In one particularly lovely, touching sequence, Sara joins Sam, his father, and Ruth in a near-wordless montage as they enjoy each other’s company and the beautiful New Zealand landscape.
Interestingly, we meet Sam first, and it’s evident that the story is meant to be from his perspective; as such, we’re viewing Ruth through his eyes. Perhaps “Juniper” was also meant to be a coming-of-age film, although the story is at its most interesting when focused on Ruth, primarily due to Rampling’s magnetic performance. Because of this, the story is not nearly as compelling when she is on the screen. Even though Sam sometimes explains his thoughts, we never really see into his psyche – probably because Ferrier’s performance leaves something to be desired. Therefore, it isn’t easy to care about the character. Sam is a typical angsty teenager going through a rough time, which is obviously relatable but something that has been overdone, to say the least. Saville and Ferrier give us nothing new with this character, who is actually more insufferable and annoying than sympathetic, despite the character’s evolution throughout the film.
Even though you can probably guess how the film will end, the journey is mostly enjoyable. Saville’s directorial debut is solid, just like his script, even if it is not groundbreaking. Despite being rather slowly paced, at 94 minutes, the film goes by rather quickly and doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome. If anything, some elements may be missing, namely, regarding Sam as a character.