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‘Juniper’: The emotional exploration of friendship

Notre Dame alum Katherine Dudas ‘14 just wrote and directed her own feature film, “Juniper.” That alone should be enough to convince you to see it, but ignoring the Notre Dame school pride part, this film is fantastic in its emotional evolution of grief and what we cling to when remembering lost loved ones, as well as the harsh reality that sometimes our memories aren’t always the full picture.

Being a film major, it’s so inspiring to know not only that Dudas once sat in many of the same classrooms as me, but also the knowledge that she has achieved what I’ve been dreaming of my entire life. What’s even more inspiring is that Dudas filmed this project during the height of the Covid lockdown, pushing through the toughest filming obstacles by keeping it small and isolated and using those limitations as part of the film’s premise.

 “Juniper” follows Mack, who decides to escape to her family’s summer cabin to mourn her sister’s death alone, but her old high school friend, Alex, has other plans. The film is an impressive first feature with emotional characters, great cinematography and fun editing. The props are a surprisingly fun highlight — especially Mack pouring vodka into the comically biggest water bottle I’ve ever seen. It’s a quick watch of only 71 minutes, and every person involved knocks it out of the park.

The core cast is fantastic. Katherine Dudas used her improv background in the writing process by letting the three actresses improvise the majority of their lines. Their chemistry strengthens the film, and it clearly shows when they naturally add and enhance each other’s dialogue to keep each scene snowballing into deeper emotions. The actresses even get their own writing credits, which I think is a nice touch and helps emphasize the collaboration that happens with such a small crew. In fact, there is an indie film genre called “mumblecore,” where the low budget filmmaking focuses on naturalistic acting with a lot of dialogue, prioritizing the relationship between the characters rather than developing an active plot. This film utilizes the genre perfectly, unfolding the complex relationship between two friends layer by layer.

The film utilizes each character in clever ways to keep the tension through every scene. Mack is on the verge of breaking the entire runtime, and any time she is about to feel in control, the film brings in another reveal to keep her on her heels. A surprise introduction halfway through the film especially flips every dynamic on its head when Alex’s brother shows up to also help Mack in his own way, breaking a girls trip getaway into an even more claustrophobic weekend. How Mack interacts with each character changes the longer she’s stuck with them, and each one sees a different side of her that challenges what she thinks is right. It all surrounds her in an unstable atmosphere that swings from peaceful to venomous without warning, and it feels like we’re getting just a glimpse of her life as she learns to open up again after her sister’s death.            

I’m really excited to see what Katherine Dudas does next. The way in which the camera follows her characters is personal, especially as it sits with them realizing their mistakes, yet she still knows when to cut to keep the story flowing. Her comedic timing offers a lot of entertainment to balance out the heavy emotions, both of which are earned through the fantastic acting and a great use of a single location. Even though there are not a lot of big names in this film — even with its incredible original indie-pop soundtrack — I believe we have the chance to give Katherine Dudas and the rest of her creative team the attention they deserve. More people need to talk about this film.

You can stream “Juniper” on Showtime. Go Irish!

Contact JP Spoonmore at jpspoonmo@nd.edu.

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