So many films fail to work on any level that it's always a treat to discover one working on two simultaneously. First and foremost, Miss Juneteenth is an easy, enjoyable watch: a supremely empathetic drama about a former smalltown beauty queen trying to steer an uninterested teenage daughter towards the pageant she won twenty years before. Yet writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples uses that narrative framework as a means of engaging with, sometimes interrogating, a selection of wider histories. The pageant of the title, for starters: an actual event that marks the anniversary of the liberation of slaves in Texas - two years after slaves were freed elsewhere. (Already, we're offered a sense of how Black citizens in this corner of the world are operating at a historical disadvantage.) Front and centre, we find one Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), a single mother who's taken on several unglamorous jobs (including bartending and funeral-home beautician) to keep the lights on after her tiara-wearing career petered out; her remaining hope has been invested in daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), though the latter would rather dance than pick up mom's sash and sceptre. Also worthy of study: Turquoise's romantic history, torn as we find her between rugged mechanic ex Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) and the funeral home's courtly director Bacon (Akron Watson), the past and some strange present. In short, Peoples gives herself plenty to chew over. Miss Juneteenth is a first film, and one wouldn't want to leap to conclusions or tie millstones around a creative's neck, but half an hour in - around the time Turquoise is collared by her choirmistress mother (Lori Hayes), who refers to bartending as "the devil's work" - I wondered whether we'd finally found a worthy successor to missing-in-action indie godfather John Sayles.
Like Sayles, Peoples gets the authenticating detail right. Turquoise and Kai share a small space that looks exactly like the kind of address where people receive final-reminder bills, not some movie idea of the poverty line; and she mixes up her actors with local non-professionals in locations that always feel lived-in, that have a history of their own. That said, she's also not afraid of putting in the movie stuff that actually moves us: the emotion, the heart. Even before the poster-ready shot of a bleary-headed Turquoise sat on her front porch, cigarette in hand, vintage tiara askew on her head, this is a hell of a showcase for Beharie, so good in Shame, so underused ever since. What makes this characterisation come alive is that for all the battering her self-esteem may have taken in the post-pageant years, Turquoise can still turn it on when she tries. Watch her charm her not-quite-no-good, more-like-sometimes-good ex into coming through with extra funds, and you'll know exactly why she got the judges' nod back in the day. Still, she's having to hold this life together, like the birthday cake she has to walk home from town for her daughter after her car conks out on her (not, we sense, for the first time). She's a good mom, but she's projecting a little when it comes to Kai - much as her own mother projected onto her. Beharie shows us the unrealised potential, and the frustration that follows from that, and in facilitating this, the film arrives at one of its biggest achievements: setting us to think how many other Turquoise Joneses there are out there. Peoples, a recent Sundance graduate who already seems like an assured observer and a wise soul, is clearly out there looking, with a lovely mix of curiosity and compassion: she shoots the concluding parades and pageants with no snark or snootiness whatsoever, aware it's a chance for these girls to put on a show - even make a stand - in a way they may never get to again.
Miss Juneteenth opens in selected cinemas from Friday, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.