Based on the 2002 Sheila Williams’ novel “Dancing on the Edge of the Roof,” “Juanita” is a movie that is almost perfect escapism in modern times. Starring Alfre Woodard and Adam Beach, “Juanita” is supposed to be a romance of sorts, but in some respects, the film seems more like a road trip movie, but with an unlikely main character.
Unlikely, if audiences are not familiar with “Waiting to Exhale.” Although, the comparisons between “Juanita” and “Waiting to Exhale” can seem too easy. Both feature black American women who leave their urban locales and problematic (or non-existent) love lives for a trip to the American West, where possibilities bloom.
“Juanita” and “Waiting to Exhale”
One key difference between the two movies is that “Waiting to Exhale” is an ensemble movie. “Juanita” on the other hand, is a one-woman show. Other people are present, but she is the focus of the movie’s narrative.
The other important difference between the two films is the tone. While the character Juanita is funny, despite the sad realities that are a part of her world, the tone of “Waiting to Exhale” is often more serious. There are exceptions to this: the scenes with the late Gregory Hines, for example.
When Juanita addresses the audience to discuss her life, including her hourly wage, she breaks the fourth wall. After explaining the problematic situations involving her adult children and their (absent) fathers, audiences want things to get better for her. Except, just like Juanita, they don’t know what that looks like.
“Juanita” and the well-developed main character
Juanita, the character, is not “running away” from her life because she is lonely. Her life is packed with people who need too much from her in one way or another. Juanita works in a hospital and makes $12.50 an hour she informs audiences. She is either a nurse’s aid, or qualified medical assistant (QMA) (it isn’t made clear) and sometimes develops close relationships with very ill patients. At home, Juanita is saddled with a grandchild who she has to watch more often than she would like – – thanks to her daughter, and her sons’ proximity to the criminal justice system.
But it isn’t all bleak for Juanita. She speaks up for herself and she has developed a rich interior life. The latter is probably the most interesting facet of the film. In her mind, she is having an affair with Blair Underwood. But even Underwood is problematic. In one segment, he is trying to sell lotion to the audience. Juanita tries to get Underwood to focus on her. Underwood wants her out of his “shot.” Some of the funniest moments come when Juanita tells Underwood off, much as she does other people. On the flipside of that is the sad truth that even her fantasies are not without problems.
When Juanita leaves Columbus, Ohio, she has no plan in regard to where she is going. She picks Butte, Montana. Ultimately, she wants to see California. Even after she finds love in the form of a Native American veteran with PTSD named Jesse. Juanita helps turn Jesse’s restaurant around, and just when audiences and Jesse are used to her presence, she decides to take on the rest of her journey. California had been mentioned in passing when she talked to a Greyhound bus driver en route to Butte. At the end, when the movie could be in a sentimental mood, Underwood shows up again, but Juanita puts him in his place. All at once, even without a traditional happily-ever-after ending, audiences trust Juanita to make good decisions. While it would have been nice to see just a few more minutes of Juanita’s life, the film forces viewers to let her go.
That “Juanita” is based on a book is no surprise. It is satisfying like a well-written novel and draws out its cast of characters without losing sight of the main character.