After a while, the same blockbuster movies on Netflix and Hulu start to turn bland. That’s where local independent theaters come in, screening gorgeous directorial debuts in their virtual rooms. Miss Juneteenth and Lucky Grandma mark promising careers for their cast and crew — rent them now to see why:
When Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) wore the crown, she was expected to follow in the steps of her Miss Juneteenth predecessors, who used the beauty pageant’s college scholarship prize to become attorneys or neurosurgeons. But after a teen pregnancy, Turquoise’s carefully-plotted ambitions were sent askew. Now, in between shifts at a funeral home and a neighborhood bar, she pins all of her former beauty pageant hopes on her 15 year-old daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), who would rather compete in a local dance team than dress up in tulle.
Director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ feature debut is a stunner, illustrating the life of a poor Black single mother who just wants to have “something for myself.” Miss Juneteenth is perfectly paced, gorgeously lit, and filled with lush emotionality and complexly-rendered conflict, aided in part by Beharie and Chikaeze’s deeply layered performances. At its core, Peoples’ film deals with the fraught responsibility of inheriting your family’s dreams, and what it means to pass them onto the next generation.
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When a New York City Chinatown matriarch gets a wildly favorable reading from a neighborhood fortuneteller, she decides to empty her meager savings account and go all in at a casino. While Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin) does end up striking gold, her good fortune plunges her deep into a Chinatown gang war. Director Sasie Sealy’s debut is a gut-twisting dark comedy that luxuriates in discomfort. Its strongest moments rely on tension: a standoff in a misty spa room that morphs into a gunfight; an ungraceful corpse disposal in an alleyway dumpster; and the final scene, when Grandma Wong quietly sits with the aftermath of the horror.
That’s when it’s clear that there isn’t a satisfying moral, character arc, or virtuous hero at the heart of the film. But Lucky Grandma doesn’t need to rely on traditionalist elements to push its story forward. Every scene is carefully framed for comedic and dramatic potential — simply seeing them is an aesthetic joy of its own. Moreover, Lucky Grandma’s leading characters — Wong and her new bodyguard, Big Pong (Corey Ha) — are lovingly crafted in all their imperfections. Even as they feel doubt and regret, it’s hard not to hope that they’ll eventually untangle themselves from mafia politics, thanks to Chin and Ha’s soft charisma.