Junebug

Urbanite art dealer, Madeleine (Davidtz), travels with her husband, George (Nivola), to his Southern hometown to meet her eccentric in-laws. Skeletons don’t so much burst out of the family closet here as dance and rattle inside the walls, impossible to ignore. Whereas something like Meet the Fockers digs around in the shallows of sitcom-level schtick for its laughs, Junebug mines a deeper vein as it explores the many sides of Madeleine’s culture clash and of George’s dysfunctional roots. The humor here is expectedly quirky but it feels earned thanks to writer MacLachlan and director Morrison’s honestly rendered observations of family and small-town life–particularly, one as provincial and rigorously Christian as the one depicted here. There’s plenty of lampooning of hillbilly oddities–the backwoods Civil War-obsessed painter that Madeleine determines to nab for her gallery takes the blue ribbon–but MacLachlan and Morrison are sure not to let Madeleine off the hook; her city-bred kiss-kiss good humor gets roughed up too occasionally and shown for the thin decorum that it is.

We wonder about George’s parents, Eugene (Wilson) and Peg (Watson). While Eugene, who has emotionally checked himself out of life, prefers to hole up in the basement, whittling figurines out of chunks of wood, Peg directs her maternal jealousies at Madeleine with passive-aggressive curtness. We wonder even more about George’s relationship with his brother, Johnny (McKenzie), which simmers with weird, unspoken tension. Johnny is every bit as bitter and unfulfilled as George is well adjusted and accomplished. To be fair, though, Johnny isn’t exactly Mr. Personality: aloof, insecure, and, so boiling over with self-loathing it seems, that he’s given to bursts of verbal violence at Peg, George, and, especially, his pregnant wife, Ashley. While we wonder about the undercurrents at play among the rest of Junebug’s characters, there’s nothing vague about Amy Adams’ Ashley–she is the heart of this tragicomic story. Ashley might be a grown woman living in a hotbed of rancor, but she’s as simple, na├»ve, and loving as a child, not to mention a very nervous and excitable talker. Her love for Johnny, and her giddy anticipation of the birth of her child are both so genuine that it’s heart-wrenching to see her grief as she feels the chasm that’s opened up in her marriage; soon enough we begin to discern the cracks in her porcelain doll exterior. In Ashley, MacLachlan and Morrison create a truly resonant character; in Adams’ hands, she’s the film’s most fully realized creation. And while every cultural and character nuance across the whole story feels true, it’s when the story is called upon to articulate a point of view–some meaning that transcends these fey culture-specific trappings–that it shuffles its feet and backs away from any clear sense of why this family is in the shape it’s in, and what that means for any of the players involved.

The experience of watching Junebug is not unlike a friend showing you his family photo album, detailing everybody’s crazy tics and quirks, and who can’t get along with whom. It’s extremely funny that way. But when you ask your friend the reason why things in his family are the way they are, he can only shrug his shoulders, close the photo album, and flee the room. Without even a hint of commentary on that score, however wry it may be, it’s not a complete picture.

Grade: B

Directed by: Phil Morrison
Written by: Angus MacLachlan
Cast: Amy Adams, Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Celia Weston, Scott Wilson, Benjamin McKenzie, Frank Hoyt Taylor

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