Stephanie Turner acts, writes and directs in a story of a single mother struggling to overcome loss and prejudice as she cares for a young girl with spina bifida. JUSTINE is a flawed yet well-intended drama that strives to tackle big issues in a rather humble production.
After the death of her serviceman husband, Lisa Wade (Turner) and her biracial children are forced to move in with her father-in-law, while she desperately accepts a job as ‘nanny’ for the disabled Justine (Daisy Prescott). Tension arises when Lisa learns of racist remarks made by Justine’s parents.
Initially reluctant to drum up the emotional capacity for care work, Lisa takes on the role of ‘nanny’ as a last resort to both pay the bills and avoid her home life. Her family appear to have adapted to their situation with considerable optimism while Lisa sleepwalks through life. Turner has allotted herself no small task as the prominent driving force of the production but her performance stumbles. She seems uncertain in a difficult role, at times expressionless and unable to properly elicit the trauma Lisa has undergone. She improves when paired with the young Prescott, a funny and dynamic presence. As can be expected, Lisa and Justine eventually bond and learn from one another about how they should and should not define themselves. It’s interesting to see them enjoy their time together, juxtaposed with the coldness Lisa offers her own children.
With Lisa spending most of her time with Justine, father-in-law Papa Don (Glynn Turman) effectively takes on the role of sole guardian. He is a likable, calming presence and instantly asserts himself as a dependable role model. However, the script sometimes hinders characterisation, with heavy-handed dialogue distracting from the central message. His secret trips to therapy with the children don’t amount to very much, although Turman does his best to turn Don into a compelling character. Told all he can do is wait in the hope that Lisa will one day revert to her former self, Don gives a look of utter powerlessness that strikes the right chord of empathy with the viewer. Turman tries hard to elevate inconsistent material and find greater depth in the role. In one scene where he fails to reconnect with Lisa over the memory of her husband, he offers a gentle reminder that he too is grieving. It is a touching, thought-provoking moment – forever tip-toeing around her, unable to honour the memory of his own son. It is unfortunate this isn’t utilised more, as Don fades into the background to instead focus on Justine and her racist parents, Alison (Darby Stanchfield) and Michael (Josh Stamberg).
The parents themselves are not depicted as evil, Turner allowing for some complexity. They do appear to love their daughter yet are dismissive of her own needs. By giving themselves the ability to sweep her disability aside to the care of a ‘nanny’, they can flee to their separate job and imagine themselves as a typical suburban family. Stamberg is effective as the smarmy father, viewing his daughter as a friendly distraction when he is bored and ignorant of his own racist views. The couple scream white privilege – completely oblivious to Don or Lisa’s husband as people and seeing them merely as a potential threat to their upper middle-class neighbourhood. The film falters when attempting a resolution to this problem. Obviously, racism is never something that can be solved overnight, but there is an abrupt conclusion that bungles the point Turner wants to make. It would’ve been more effective to see the seeds of remorse shown in the couple, especially Michael, who slinks away while Alison pushes the issue aside to instead focus on Justine’s health. This assuredly was not the intent but it comes across as overly dismissive.
JUSTINE strives to tackle serious issues and does raise a few interesting questions, but the film falls short due to its on-the-nose script and lacklustre direction. In a largely unsubtle film, there are shades of ambiguity and brief moments which suggest this is a mere first draft of a stronger, more resonant story.