Juniper – a genus of hardy aromatic evergreen trees or shrubs of the cypress family, distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The “berry” – actually a fleshy cone – of the juniper is used to flavor gin.
Sam (George Ferrier – “Kiwi Christmas”) is having a difficult time of it. He is away at boarding school, and not fitting in well. On top of it, his grandmother, Ruth (Charlotte Rampling – “45 Years”), whom he has never met, is coming to stay – in his late mother’s bedroom. Ruth is the estranged mother of Sam’s own somewhat estranged father, Robert (Marton Csokas – “Aeon Flux”), and is coming to live with them on their rural property in New Zealand.
When his dad comes to pick him up from boarding school Sam sees a large amount of liquor in the car. Asking if it is for his grandmother, and for the summer, he learns the large amount will last her about two weeks.
So begins “Juniper,” written and directed by Matthew J. Saville (“Dive”), in his feature length directorial debut. As the story progresses, we learn Ruth loves her mixture of gin, water and lemon, has a very sharp tongue which she uses freely in an odd mixture of courtesy, invective, and expletive, and will brook no resistance to her demands. She is not above physical aggression when provoked. However, she is otherwise physically helpless due to a broken leg that is not mending well, and is thus somewhat at the mercy of her young nurse companion, Sarah (Edith Poor – “The Power of the Dog”), Sam, and Robert.
Then Robert goes off to England on a vague trip to deal with Ruth’s financial affairs. All this sets the stage for a mutually beneficial relationship between grandmother and grandson, with Sam emotionally broken by the death of his mother, and Ruth hiding a secret under her bluff facade.
Casting Britisher Charlotte Rampling as the “grandmother with a questionable past” was a master-stroke. Now 77, she still has the smoldering half-closed eyes of her days opposite Dirk Bogarde in “The Night Porter” back in 1974. And the same sharp delivery. Her performance here is spot on, as is that of each of the other cast members.
The slow growth of a relationship between young Sam and his ailing grandmother is delicately portrayed, thanks to the excellent script by Saville. He has explained that he based the grandmother character on his own adventurous but distant grandmother.
We are also treated to some beautiful New Zealand countryside – not the sort captured in “The “Hobbit”, but gorgeous rolling vistas. The musical score is muted and appropriate to the exploration of human emotions and motivation, without the overbearing intrusion one finds all too often.
Another positive point in the production of this film: there are numerous Maori people in the production, including at the boarding school and among Sam’s friends. While the closest they come to a major part in the film is the Anglican priest, they are present in number in every group scene. We are even treated to an exuberant Maori chant.
This is a small film, lovingly crafted, and well worth the time to seek it out and enjoy familial bonds as they overcome alienation.
Writer/Director: Matthew J. Saville
Producers: Angela Littlejohn, Desray Armstrong
Cinematographer: Marty Williams
Editor: Peter Roberts
Music: Marlon Williams, Mark Perkins
Runtime: One hour, 34 minutes
Availability: Limited theatrical release, Feb. 24, 2023
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