Marking an impressive directorial debut, “Miss Juneteenth” is a straightforward story of mothers and daughters — of opportunities lost, roads not taken, and hopes and dreams passed from one generation to the next. It’s also a terrific showcase for star Nicole Beharie, hitting demand platforms on, yes, June 19, following a run on the festival circuit.
Writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples grew up in Texas, where the movie is set, as teenagers vie for the crown of Miss Juneteenth. It’s a beauty pageant offering scholarships to historic black universities, tied to the commemoration of slaves in Texas being freed two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
For Beharie’s Turquoise Jones, though, that title — which she won as a youth — is a chronic reminder of all that didn’t happen for her. Despite having earned that crown, she’s now struggling to get by, basically managing things at the local barbecue joint, while scraping to support her 15-year-old daughter Kai (newcomer Alexis Chikaeze), who has entered the pageant, albeit without the same enthusiasm that mom appears to harbor for it
The competition represents a chance at something bigger for Kai that Turquoise, having gotten pregnant young, was denied. That’s a familiar chord, but the stage-mom dynamic is more resonant because while Kai’s experience is explored, this isn’t another coming-of-age story but rather unfolds primarily from the mom’s perspective, as she weathers hearing time and again that she’s destined for more than her life has become.
Turquoise’s mother (Lori Hayes), for example, prods her to take greater advantage of her beauty — the one gift, she notes, that she bequeathed to her. “It takes more than looks to survive,” Turquoise says, to which her mom bluntly responds, “Not in this world.”
A Texas native, Godfrey Peoples knows the territory well, efficiently introducing characters that include Kai’s sporadically-in-the-picture father (“Insecure’s” Kendrick Sampson) and a local mortuary operator (Akron Watson) whose longstanding crush on Turquoise is scarcely concealed.
Perhaps foremost, “Miss Juneteenth” effectively straddles the line between portraying the nature of Turquoise’s struggle and hopes for more — especially for her child, wanting her to avoid the same mistakes — without being maudlin or grasping for miraculous, facile solutions.
After the TV show “Sleepy Hollow” and movies like “42,” Beharie makes the most of this starring vehicle, conveying Turquoise’s longing and concern for Kai, often with just wistful stares and pained expressions.
Distribution rights to the movie were acquired in April, when hopes lingered of a theatrical release that would coincide with the obvious release date. While the digital premiere is designed to capitalize on the timeliness of the title, the movie’s strength resides in the timelessness of its story.
“Miss Juneteenth” premieres June 19 in theaters, digital and on demand.