A film steeped in gin, memories, and the desperation of youth

In Juniper Charlotte Rampling plays an alcoholic English grandma with a broken leg. Well off and transferred to New Zealand with a nurse, a wheel chair, and her gin and water, she is left for a while at the film's turning point with her grandson Sam (George Ferrier), who has been suspended from boarding school and is rather desperate, still grieving over the death of his mother several months earlier and deeply angry at himself for some recent behavior. Sam's father, Ruth's son, Robert (Marton Csokas), is temporarily in England to straighten out some financial documents and do something else he hasn't talked about.

Director Saville's job is to make the encounter between Sam and Ruth powerful despite the disability of the dying old lady and the unformed nature of the youth. Sam learns about Ruth, and grows close to her, not only by talking and trying to drink with her (this is a bibulous family, though he can't quite keep up), but also by leafing through her photographs. It turns out she was a wartime photographer, and doubtless famous. As the youth and the glamorous old lady spar and come together, almost a kind of romance develops between them, and he finds the courage he'd been searching for and a late-blooming rapprochement occurs between father and son and codger. Sam may need to lose his virginity, or at least get laid. Will he make it with the attractive nurse Sarah (Edith Poor)? We never know.

Stephen Farber wrote admiringly of young Ferrier in his Hollywood Reporter review at the film's Santa Barbara premiere saying he "makes a striking impression" and is "handsome and charismatic" but also "conveys a convincing sense of bitterness and a dangerous tendency toward self-destruction." "For the film to work," Farber notes, "both of the actors must be commanding," and Ferrier "makes a perfect foil to his older co-star" and "should have a promising future."

A dark humor prevails earlier, but there is a certain romanticism and sentimentalism about this film's finale. Young Ferrier, who is tall, blond, and robust enough to carry Rampling around and "dance" with her with both legs off the ground, has to grow beyond his pretty face (think Paul Newman with early Ethan Hawke and a New Zealand twang), and hints of a certain authentic desperation help that along. There is a scene involving Ferrier alone with a rope and a white horse that is one of the film's most surprising and memorable.

The cinematography of Marty Williams makes this a film bathed in early morning sunlight. It is also steeped in alcohol, of course, and in personal memory, since it's partly based on Saville's experiences growing up in New Zealand. Very low-keyed despite one rowdy party, this is still one more chance to watch the iconic Ms. Rampling at work, and she does not disappoint. Nor does she let playing alcoholic, old, and dying stop her from being as regal as ever, this time engaging with home truths that make Juniper one of her most three-dimensional roles. The ultimate late-bloomer, Rampling obviously still has a lot left to give us.

Juniper, 94 mins., this directorial feature debut of Saville, previously more known as an actor, debuted at Santa Barbara Mar. 2021 and opened in New Zealand Aug. 24, 2021, showing at several other festivals in fall of that year. Now distributed in the US by Greenwich Entertainment, in opens in theaters Feb. 24, 2023 and on Amazon and Apple TV Apr. 4.