Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘Just In Time’ Arrives a Little Late

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Just in Time is a well-meaning Kenyan movie that feels like a short film stretched into a feature. It spends a tremendous amount of time trying to catch us up on drama that happens offscreen while making us sit through tedious arguments on-screen. While at times there are sparks of visual ingenuity, sadly, the sparks never catch fire.

The film seems willed into existence by Nigerian filmmaker Dolapo Adeleke. Adeleke is the director, writer, editor, music supervisor, set dresser, and more. Suffice to say, it is a labor of love. As much work that Adeleke has put into this movie, I would expect to see more of Adeleke in the film.

Instead, Just in Time lacks any authentic style or personality and frequently comes off as bland and listless. The lack of any visual flair causes the film to drag. Much of the film consists of scenes written and blocked so clumsy it draws attention to itself.

Muthoni (Sarah Hassan) loses her job at a local bookstore. The owner, her boss, has died. His kids have inherited the shop and are turning the shop into a spa. Meanwhile, Muthoni’s cousin Njeri (Pierra Makena) is going through a divorce which she is trying to keep secret from her daughter Ashley (Stycie Waweru) until she can find the time to break the news to her.

By itself, this is fine. But then Njeri goes on vacation and leaves Ashley with Muthoni, who she has not spoken to for years. Just in Time is a movie filled with drama but without a clue how to structure it. Scenes start with declarations which lead to arguments only to end with flustered characters waving their hands in exasperation.

The actors bravely struggle through a script that operates abruptly and erratically. Or that many of the lines in Adeleke’s script are information dumps disguised as dialogue. Take this bit of dialogue from Muthoni as she argues with the new owner. “I tried to share some new ideas with Mr. Vijal, before his long-term illness, two years ago…”. 

Except Mr. Vijal’s long-term illness is never spoken of or even crucial to the plot. The worst offense has to be a zoom call between Muthoni and her brother. “Have you been able to reach Njeri? You know our cousin? We grew up together.” 

These lines exist for no other reason but to act as narrative shortcuts, but they create hurdles for the actors in the process. It’s hard to develop an inner life for the character if most of the dialogue exists merely to set up future scenes and even more challenging as an audience to get invested. 

The actors seem lost in the scene, but that’s because the scene isn’t about Muthoni and her brother’s relationship. It’s there merely to tell us that she has no friends or love life. It is a scene designed not to show us who she is by how she relates to her brother but to tell us who she is instead of letting us discover for ourselves.

Just in Time feels as if it drags on forever. A pity because despite how the review may read, Hassan is a likable enough actor who seems lost in a script without direction. Eventually, a romantic subplot develops between Muthoni and Kobena (Mawuli Gavor), a visiting friend of one of her neighbors. Hasan and Gavor have a sweet chemistry, enough to where I found myself rooting for them.

For all its faults, Just in Time has moments where you can see a voice and a more exciting story underneath all the manufactured drama. Such as when Muthoni goes to a #WomenCrushingIt seminar. As she tries to leave, a woman stops her and asks her to take a survey. 

Both women are uncomfortable, with the volunteer being aggressively cheerful, and both seem to understand the other’s true feelings. Adeleke briefly plumbs the awkwardness of what happens when social media activism bleeds into the real world. Muthoni only signed up for the group on Instagram and forgot about it. She showed up out of guilt. Both actors shine as they try and dance around the pageantry of the social contract.

Just in Time works best when it leans into its satirical undertones. Flourishes like Muthoni’s vision board with #girlboss a the center as she searches for meaning from inspiration videos on youtube. But these are merely flashes because while these moments are great, the film is not a satire.

Adeleke’s earnestness is something I hope she keeps because it is a strength of the film. It’s the sincerity that helps with moments such as Ashley, a young girl connecting with Kobena as he confesses his dyslexia. The earnestness doesn’t sink the scene. The stumbling block is the tone and how it feels as if Kobena is telling the girl he has cancer rather than dyslexia.

Just in Time never seems to be able to overcome its visual staleness. But at times, Victor Ombogo’s camera and Adeleke’s editing meld in such a way that the film becomes wonderfully and refreshingly cinematic. Whereas some directors rely too much on camera tricks and gimmicks, Adeleke doesn’t use them enough. 

Shots of Muthoni sitting in her room alone on her bed express more about her mood and psychological headspace than a line of dialogue clumsily providing exposition for the last thirty minutes of the film. Adeleke should have more faith in her cameraman and her editing. The film’s montages are effective and utilized to show us the progression of Muthoni, Ashley, and Kobena’s relationship. 

Together, Adeleke and Ombogo show a keen visual eye in expressing a character’s emotional life and understanding narrative structure. Early on, a scene alternates between Ashely’s bedroom and Mouthoni’s, the former sleeping and the other contemplating her decision. Njeri’s voice is heard over the scene, asking her cousin to watch Ashley. A rare instance of a cinematic insight so neatly executed that it makes the rest of the film’s lackadaisical framing baffling.

I admire the film’s desire to tell stories about women. But it feels Adeleke left much of the exciting observations by the wayside to make room for needless or repetitive exposition. Just in Time is not a good movie. But it is not without promise.

Image courtesy of Netflix/filmOne Entertainment

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