The big moment of pathos in “Justine” comes courtesy one of the best character actors in the business — Glynn Turman.
He’s a supporting player, as he often is, the father of a Marine killed in the Middle East. His daughter-in-law hasn’t come to grips with that, and has utterly shut down — barely talking to her two grade school kids, brusquely leaning on “Papa Don” to do the child care, keep a roof over their heads and make their new life living with him work.
The widow won’t allow pictures of the deceased in the house, won’t let her kids even mention the man they call “you-know-who…’D.A.D.'”
And Papa Don is worried for her, the children and himself, concerned enough to take the kids with him for an impulse visit to a Veterans Administration grief counselor. It’s a subtle yet fraught scene, and Turman, 60 years into a career of making little moments click, sing or sting, gives us just a hint of tears and a tiny choked-up moment in his voice.
“Girl like a robot,” Don says to the counselor (Cleo King), explaining why Lisa (writer-director Stephanie Turner) isn’t here to talk, and let her kids talk to a mental health professional.
Movies can be a treasure trove of such riches, and if you watch a lot of them, you may find yourself rooting for a veteran player like Turman — who had too little to do in Ben Affleck’s “The Way Back” — to have a great moment.
He does, and “Justine” is the richer for it. The film isn’t about him, or for that matter the title character, a tween (Daisy Prescott) with spina bifida whose too-busy parents hire Lisa for the only job she can get in a tight California work market — nanny/caregiver to their special needs child.
It’s about Lisa, broken, chilly and shut-off from everything except the anger over her husband’s death, the “open investigation” the military is carrying out into that death.
The job is pushed on her, even though she’s looking for one of those rare-than-rare low-impact “receptionist” gigs. “I really don’t think I’m care-takerish,” she complains.
But the Greens have a lot of money, and are willing to pay top dollar to have somebody do what they, too-conveniently we think, are too busy to do themselves — raise their house-bound, home-schooled child.
Allison (Darby Stanfield) and Mike (Josh Stamberg) live in a McMansion, but speak only of Justine’s “needs” and “surgeries.” It takes a realtor (her) and a builder (him), working seven days a week, to pay for all this. Just keep Justine on her schedule. Oh, and by the way — don’t let her get too close to you.
And even if they give off a frosty vibe, even though Lisa is barely warm enough to have a pulse, the job is hers.
I don’t want to make too much of the movie writer-director-star Turner has cooked up, here. Kudos for not letting it lapse into “lonely/smart special-needs girl melts cold hearts” trap. “Justine” rarely touches us that way. And the confrontations — with mean kids and their “Are you like, retarded?” mouthing off at the park, Lisa vs the “What kind of people ARE you?” parents — are strictly pro forma.
But the performances are just winning enough to lead us down this familiar, formulaic path, one more time. And Turman, as he has pretty much every time the role is worthy of his talents, stands out, giving “Justine” that extra dose of humanity and heart that makes it worth your while.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, profanity
Cast: Stephanie Turner, Daisy Prescott, Darby Stanfield, Josh Stamberg, Bridget Kallal, Ravi Cabot-Conyers and Glynn Turman
Credits: Written and directed by Stephanie Turner. A Netflix Original.
Running time: 1:46