June 18, 2020 10:13 PM EDT

If, at their best, American movies remind us of anything, it’s that this country is much bigger—and richer, and more diverse—than we might think. In writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ captivating and forthright debut feature Miss Juneteenth, set in and around Forth Worth, Texas, a young single mother, Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), has big dreams for her 14-year-old daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze)—or, rather, she’s desperate to have Kai fulfill the dream that she herself lost out on, years earlier. As a teenager, Turquoise had won the local Miss Juneteenth pageant, a contest for young women organized as part of the city’s Juneteenth celebration, commemorating the day—June 19, 1865—when Texas slaves finally learned they’d been freed (two years after the Emancipation Proclamation). The Miss Juneteenth crown isn’t just a vanity prize; it comes with a scholarship. But Turquoise became pregnant with Kai before she could take advantage of that opportunity herself. Now she desperately wants Kai to enter the pageant, even though Kai is far more interested in landing a spot on her school’s dance team. Turquoise strives to honor tradition; Kai yearns to break free. It’s as if their past and that of their forebears—a cycle of growth and struggle, pride and suffering—had created choppy cross-currents threatening to bear them in different directions.

Some version of this sort of mother-daughter clash plays out every day, in every pocket of the country (and the world), and in that sense Miss Juneteenth is universal and specific at once. But the movie also has a strong sense of place, a quality that makes it feel both immediate and transportive. Turquoise and Kai live in a very modest house, and though Turquoise works two jobs to keep them afloat, there’s never enough to go around. An unpaid utility bill means an evening spent in darkness; a car that breaks down necessitates a long walk home. Turquoise is juggling a lot, and the men in her life who vie for her affection don’t help: One of them is Kai’s father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), from whom Turquoise is on-and-off estranged; he’s a mechanic who tries to do right, but he also keeps gambling his money away and getting in other sorts of trouble. The other is Bacon (Akron Watson), the upstanding proprietor of the local funeral home where Turquoise works part-time as a makeup artist. Bacon has always had a crush on her, but she can’t reciprocate; he’s a good man who’d take care of her financially, but there’s something holding her back from taking that step.

Turquoise doesn’t know exactly what she wants for herself, but her goals for Kai are clear: She desperately wants her daughter to have all the choices that eluded her. The pageant entry fee is $400, but she scrapes it together; the gown Kai will need costs twice that, but Turquoise is determined to come up with that, too. She hoards the tips she makes as a jill-of-all trades at a local rib joint, whose owner (played by Marcus M. Mauldin) refuses to apply for a loan to spruce up the place. Like other Black businesspeople in the community, he built his business from the bottom; loans from banks, controlled by white people, are rare, and even if you get one, it comes with too many strings attached.

Miss Juneteenth is built from layers like that; it’s not just the story of a mother and daughter, but a tapestry of a whole community. Peoples, who grew up in the Fort Worth area herself, has filled her movie with characters and details that feel lived in: There’s the pageant doyenne (Phyllis Cicero), an exceedingly proper matron who insists on schooling the contestants in which knife and fork to use at a fancy dinner—she’s overbearing, but she makes you understand why manners mean so much to certain Black women of her generation, as a way of flowering in the greater world, of ascending to her place at the table. Turquoise’s mother, Charlotte (Lori Hayes), is a staunch church lady by day, though she harbors her own secrets; her troubles are part of the key to Turquoise’s own hopes for a better life. Peoples doesn’t pass judgment on any of her characters, but she’s attuned to the ways rigid adherence to ideals can be right for some people and wrong for others. Cutting your own path, your own way, is hard enough.

And the lead performances are lovely. As Kai, newcomer Chikaeze has a touching radiance. Kai loves her mother and wants to please her, but she also needs some independence; Chikaeze navigates that conflict with understated confidence. (A scene in which Kai stares herself down in the mirror, scrutinizing the hair her mother has so carefully straightened for the pageant and recognizing that it doesn’t square with how she wants to present herself to the world, is just one of the film’s many moments of searing beauty.) And Beharie—perhaps best known from TV’s Sleepy Hollow and Black Mirror—takes a type of character you’ve seen many times before, the beleaguered single mom, and renders her in a subtly varied palette. Even as Turquoise is still drawn to Ronnie, she’s yearning for a life that belongs to her alone. She takes the first step toward that life at the movie’s end, a satisfying conclusion with a bittersweet edge. For Turquoise, there’s no such thing as being a former Miss Juneteenth. She’s earned the right to wear that crown every day.

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