In my new-movie watching this week: one bright light, and one big disappointment. Let’s start with brightness: Channing Godfrey Peoples’ moving debut feature, “Miss Juneteenth” (screening on various VOD platforms, including Comcast and Amazon), pulls you into its quiet world; it feels so natural that you find yourself imagining the characters living their lives, long after the final frame. At its center is Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), a hardworking single mom in a small Texas town. She supports her daughter by tending bar and scrubbing bathrooms at a local barbecue joint, where a faded photo of Turquoise as Miss Juneteenth — the winner of a local scholarship pageant for Black teenage girls — hangs on the wall.
Winning the pageant 15 years ago was a high point in Turquoise’s life; shortly thereafter, she got pregnant, married the unreliable Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) and watched as ambitious plans for her life slipped away. Now she clings to memories of that win — the moment was, she remembers, “like I was walking into a new life” — and is determined to give that as a gift to her teenage daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). In the way of so many teenage daughters, however, it’s a gift that Kai doesn’t want.
All of this is familiar film territory, but Peoples gives it a gentle, warmhearted quality; it all feels beautifully lived-in. Turquoise gazes at Kai the same way Kai gazes at the girls on the dance team at school: with quiet, aching yearning, seeing herself replicated there. Her daughter, Turquoise realizes, is her dream now, and she sets out to re-create her Miss Juneteenth triumph in Kai, who wants to please her mother but is indifferent to being a pageant queen. In the too-expensive ocean-blue gown that Turquoise struggles to pay for, the girl looks like a sad mermaid; she practices the poem Turquoise once recited as her pageant talent, but it’s clear her heart’s not in it. (Turquoise, meanwhile, still remembers every gesture, and still lights up when she performs it.)
Along the way, “Miss Juneteenth” touches on issues of social justice — the prison labor system, when Ronnie is incarcerated; and the struggles many Black-owned businesses face, as Turquoise and her co-workers fight to keep the restaurant going after its owner suffers a medical emergency. But at its heart, this is a mother-daughter story, anchored by a glorious performance by Beharie, who makes Turquoise a beacon of determination and maternal love. You realize, in the pageant’s final moments, how very much you’re rooting for Kai and Turquoise — and you get happily lost in the film’s last images, of Turquoise and Kai together. Beharie leaves us with a woman seeming to be gazing into a just-opened doorway, seeing profound, welcoming possibility on its other side.
And now, the disappointment: Jon Stewart’s flat political comedy “Irresistible” (available on multiple VOD platforms) is, alas, a clunker. Steve Carell plays a Democratic Party operative who gets drawn into a mayoral race in a small Wisconsin town; thinking that the candidacy of a plain-spoken former Marine colonel (Chris Cooper) might be just the thing to draw heartland voters back to the party. Ouch. The movie feels old-fashioned, condescending, simple-minded and — worst of all — unfunny. The usually charming Carell seems lost, playing a sort of darker version of Michael Scott from “The Office,” except that nobody seems to be in on the joke. Is anyone, these days, in the mood for a cluelessly bad movie about politics? If you pay the hefty fee to rent this one on opening week, the joke might be on you.