By -

Rating: ***

LSJ Media and Transmission Films have 10 double tickets to give away for Juniper, in cinemas from August 4. To enter, please send your postal address and LawID to [email protected] by 5pm on Monday 8 August.

The woes of growing old are nothing compared to the woes of growing up. That’s the central theme of Juniper, the feature debut of New Zealand actor-turned-filmmaker Matthew J Saville, who also penned the script. If you think this is a straightforward concept that has been aired in film before, you’re not wrong, and Juniper hasn’t much that’s new to add to the conversation. But this also doesn’t mean Juniper is not worth your time.

Sam (George Ferrier) returns home from his males-only boarding school when his father Robert (Marton Csokas) reveals that Sam’s estranged grandmother Ruth (Charlotte Rampling) is staying for a while with a nurse as she recovers from a severe illness. Ruth’s relationship with her son is mysteriously turbulent, and his father’s animosity has rubbed off a bit on Sam, who doesn’t seem to have much time for the old lady. He barely addresses her, leaves his father and the nurse to look after her, and, when he hears that Robert has found an excuse to escape in the form of a business trip, abruptly interjects that he “won’t talk to the bitch”. His words sound as harsh and unjustified in the film as they do here, but they are a way for Saville to reiterate that Sam and his father have a mountain to climb in terms of relationship building.

We don’t see Ruth do much. She spends her days sitting on a chair in a locked room. There’s a television set, but it’s turned off, so for all we know her days are spent guzzling gin in pitchers (half gin, half water, one squeezed lemon, don’t water it down) to the tune of one crate a fortnight – all the while, we assume, looking out of the window. A great deal of introspection happens in that situation, so it’s not surprising that she finds increasing excuses to connect with her grandson. Little by little, the two warm up to each other so Ruth can have a final go at living meaningfully before her time runs out, and Sam can find the joy of living he thought to be lost.

Shades of Harold and Maude without the sexual tension and the joie de vivre, complete with our young male protagonist botching a hanging attempt before facing the old woman.

Still, most of the time Juniper’s themes contrast heavily with those in Hal Ashby’s classic. There is an almost nihilistic rationale for Harold’s self-harm; Sam’s owns attempt lacks this. His frustration arises from his circumstances – the early death of his mother that he hasn’t yet internalised, his judgement of his father, whom he believes not to be grieving as much as he should, the isolation of New Zealand’s countryside, and the sexual frustration of a student at an all-male boarding school. Sam is a passive protagonist who needs a hearty shake-up, and Ruth, in not wishing to face death in loneliness, just happens to offer exactly that.

Most of of the film works mainly because Charlotte Rampling sells the story with thunderous poise. She’s ill-tempered, seemingly beyond reason, but provides a strong sense of the character’s backstory: a woman with a lifetime of experiences and mistakes that have shaped her. Other characters, including Sam, need a hefty dose of exposition to explain their background, but Rampling is so good at the craft that the complexity of her character is revealed just by the way she rings a bell and demands to be carried to the toilet, “though, believe me, it’s more demeaning to me than it is to you”.

It’s in that exposition that Juniper’s demise lies. The clunky initial dialogue, especially between Sam and Robert, shows a lack of confidence – all this film had to do was quietly place its characters in their own worlds without revealing much about them. The pleasure of seeing two of the main characters slowly open up is undermined by the too-early introduction of their weak spots. And, given the early reveal of Robert’s stubbornness, there’s no chance for the audience to see this character become more rounded as the story progresses.

For a feature debut, Juniper doesn’t re-invent the wheel, nor, I think, does it say anything revealing that hasn’t been said before. It lacks the confidence of a tight script even though Saville is a great director who understands how the space around his characters can be used to shape and mirror their personalities. But it’s Rampling who is the reason to watch the film. For the full 90 minutes the film runs, I could have just watched her character gazing at the window and drinking gin. And she wouldn’t even have had to stand up from her chair.