When we first meet Juanita (Alfre Woodard), she’s delivering exposition directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall to bring the audience into her world as if it were her character introduction in Cameron Crowe’s Singles. Stuck in a thankless job and forced to support her adult children and infant granddaughter, she dreams of an escape, often by imagining herself in a trashy soap opera romance with actor Blair Underwood (playing an exaggerated version of himself). But even in her fantasies, she isn’t in control. Following a slew of films that give white women the opportunity to exit a monotonous slump (Eat Pray Love, Under the Tuscan Sun, etc.), Netflix’s Juanita provides a charming, breezy vehicle for a woman of color to find respite in a life-altering vacation.
Adapted from Sheila Williams’ novel Dancing on the Edge of the Roof, Juanita’s imprecise sabbatical finds her on a Greyhound bus from Columbus, Ohio to Butte, Montana, the farthest she can afford to travel away from her stalled life. In her cross-country journey, she lands in the remote small town of Paper Moon, where she takes up with the staff and patrons of a struggling French restaurant. There, she reinvents herself and discovers romance with a warm, if troubled, chef named Jess (Adam Beach).
Despite its relatively commonplace base premise, director Clark Johnson (S.W.A.T., The Sentinel) and screenwriter Roderick M. Spencer (Woodard’s real-life husband) imbue Juanita with its own stamp of recognizable personality. Zippy, creative transitions and God’s-honest-truth humor make for light fantasy that enables 90 minutes of cushy escapism. Yet nearly all of the film’s appeal rests on the shoulders of its not-so-secret weapon Woodard, whose heartfelt performance gracefully sells every conflicting emotional beat the script tosses her way. It may not be the starring vehicle she deserves, but Juanita is a glowing showcase of her potential as a leading lady.
However, what the film has in charm it lacks in structure. Juanita has a lot on its mind, to the point where it often feels messy and distracted, getting bogged down with scattered side plots and half-baked cultural conversations. When trying to flesh out its side characters, the narrative slides off the rails a bit, igniting discussions about the displacement of indigenous people that it doesn’t have the patience or the nuance to tackle properly. Johnson, who is often caught in an awkward middle ground, would have achieved more skeletal coherency had he chosen a side
— either to fully explore the ramifications of societal isolation or abandon them altogether.
It’s difficult not to give yourself over to Juanita’s magnetism as it permits its heroine to pursue her own fulfillment, even if the dexterity to carry out all of its lofty ambitions isn’t there. This tale is a familiar one, but there’s a reason filmmakers keep returning to this well. Self-discovery quests of the middle-agers will always have their appeal, and this is no exception. An ideal get for Netflix, Juanita is a cozy romp that goes down easy and is best experienced on the couch, a glass of wine in tow.