When did you first realize that Alfre Woodard was one of the greatest actresses of our time? For me, it was John Sayles' 1992 two-hander Passion Fish where she played a nurse at the end of her rope opposite a paraplegic former soap opera star played by Mary McDonnell. (This may not have been a giant box office smash, but it meant a lot to me at the time.) Soon thereafter she was the mom in Spike Lee's semi-autobiographical dramedy Crooklyn, and right after that there she was with Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: First Contact telling him to "blow up the damn ship!" She's versatile, is what I'm saying, and she's been at it for a long time.
Woodard is such a pro that she manages to make Juanita, a new quirky road-trip film debuting on Netflix (streaming here), watchable. Well, almost watchable. Though based on a book (Dancing on the Edge of the Roof by Sheila Williams), Juanita feels like it's been sitting in a drawer since 1993. It's hoping that we've never seen an independent, Sundance-y film before, and will be charmed to death with quirky, kooky characters. "A diner chef who likes to cook fine French cuisine? Now I've seen everything!"
The first third of the movie isn't that bad. Juanita (Woodard) is a woman that's been chewed up by life at every turn. She makes $12.50 an hour "doing the dirty work" at a Columbus, Ohio hospital (her precise title is unclear) and has raised three kids as a single mother. (There were two different fathers, both out of the picture.) One son doesn't work but is "halfway to being a thug," selling drugs. Her daughter had her first baby at 19 and runs around with a new guy each night. Her eldest son, the "good" one, was a victim of circumstance and is in jail. "I'm a ghetto cliché," she sighs.
She does, however, have a good sense of humor, as well as an active imagination. A recurring gag is a complex series of fantasies involving Blair Underwood in various states of undress. As Woodard speaks to the camera, the opening scenes feel like an adapted play, and her line readings get some deep laughs. Then Juanita realizes she's had enough of her stressful life, borrows a little cash, buys a bus ticket to a random spot on a map (Butte, Montana), and figures she'll find some adventure. It's like the author had a great, rich character and said: "Okay, now we fling her somewhere and hope a story follows!"
The minute she gets on that bus the movie goes full phony-baloney. Have you ever ridden a Greyhound? You don't meet a parade of wacky characters. You sit there quietly and read a magazine.
But Juanita (after a fantasy musical number featuring Little Feat's "Fat Man in the Bathtub," a deep-cut song I've always loved that has the name Juanita in the chorus) ends up at a diner, then riding with a protective lesbian truck driver into the hinterlands, then finally to another diner. The new one is owned by Jess (Adam Beach, in a floofy chef's hat). He only has complicated Gallic dishes on the menu when all the clientele really wants some simple country cookin'. After negging him, Juanita ends up convincing Jess to give her a job. Once she starts easing his PTSD nightmares (he fought in Operation: Desert Storm) they end up in love.
Their courtship consists of her having a panic attack (never quite explained) at a gathering of Blackfoot Indians and Jess and the elders chanting and offering her prayers. The next morning as the sun shines through the leaves the pair sit beside a babbling brook and look lovely. Still, Juanita wants more. She has to visit California (though it's the first she's mentioned it) despite the fact that this spot in Montana is an absolute paradise. She has a new lover, a group of friends, a job where she excels and is treated with respect, gorgeous scenery, good weather. I don't really get it! But I wasn't going to spend too much time worrying about it, as by this point the movie was pure wish fulfillment.
Juanita is directed by Clark Johnson, a character actor who has directed episodes of The Wire, Homeland, and Orange is the New Black. Clearly, this is someone who knows how to tell a story. I just think this is a case of relying a little too much on an audience falling in love with the characters. Still, can't fault a director for wanting to hang out with Alfre Woodard next to mountain streams for a few weeks. Whether you'll want to do so for 90 minutes is a toss-up.
Jordan Hoffman is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, whose work has appeared in The Guardian, VanityFair.com, amNewYork, Thrillist and Times of Israel.