It’s always refreshing to see a film about grief – a subject that’s entirely too popular today – that approaches its subject in a unique and interesting way. Juniper is one of those films. It centers on Mack (Madison Lawlor) as she retreats to her family’s cabin after the recent and unexpected death of her younger sister Natalie. Unbeknownst to her, her childhood friend Alex (Decker Sadowski) – a party girl who lives freely without worry – and Alex’s best friend from college Dylan (Olivia Blue) show up to support her. While Mack appreciates the gesture, she clearly wants to grieve in her own way, in her own time, but Alex doesn’t seem to get the hint. Old conflicts resurface, along with new ones, and the film poses an interesting question: is there a right or a wrong way to grieve? First-time director Katherine Dudas directs the film with an intimacy that’s befitting the subject matter, and the dialogue feels improvisational but impactful. The screenplay is credited to the three above-mentioned actresses and Dudas, which suggests each performer was given the freedom to write their own dialogue, and their confidence in their characters’ inner lives easily comes through in the final product. That Juniper is Dudas’ directorial debut shows an even greater confidence in and familiarity with her collaborators.
Speaking of confidence, it’s a trait that Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game has in spades, sometimes to great effect, and sometimes not. It’s the true story of Roger Sharpe, an aimless young man trying to find purpose in his life. As you might have guessed, his passion is pinball, which just so happens to be illegal in New York in the 1970s. Mike Faust (West Side Story) portrays Roger as a kind of lovesick puppy; it’s not that Roger is a pinball prodigy per se, he just can’t see himself doing anything else. His paths cross with Ellen (Crystal Reed) and their romance is a nice highlight to an otherwise boilerplate David versus Goliath story. First-time writers and directors Austin and Meredith Bragg clearly have a reverence for Roger’s story, and it comes through in the film’s framing device, where the real-life Roger breaks the fourth wall and essentially narrates his own story. It’s a charming conceit that will likely work for most but came off as forced more often than not to me. Still, it’s a harmless good time and provides some authentic emotional resonance.