'God loves you just the way you are but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.'
Amy Adams as Ashley in "Junebug"
Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz, "The Emperor's Club"), recently married to North Carolinian George (Alessandro Nivola, "Laurel Canyon," "The Clearing"), is intent on signing a regional artist near her husband's home town for her 'Outsider' (i.e., self-taught) Art Gallery in Chicago. The couple decides to travel there together and introduce Madeleine to George's family, but the worldly woman isn't exactly accepted with open arms - except, that is, by her naive sister-in-law Ashley (Amy Adams, "Catch Me If You Can," "The Wedding Date"), heavily pregnant with a child she hopes to call "Junebug."
Director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan (who collaborated on the Sundance short "Tater Tomater") have come up with a true American original, a film where more is said between the lines than spoken. This is so much more than a look at a place through an outsider's eyes - it is a look at regional art, perception, marriage, religion, customs and family as well. "Junebug" is a small miracle that marks the emergence of a truly unique new filmmaking team.
George's family dynamics are laid out before he even arrives. Mother Peg (Celia Weston, "The Village") smokes anxiously as she prepares the house. She's annoyed at her younger son Johnny's (Benjamin McKenzie, TV's "The O.C.") lazy cadging of cigarettes and she treats her daughter-in-law like a young child. Father Eugene (Scott Wilson, "Pearl Harbor," "The Last Samurai") keeps to himself, enveloped in chores and woodworking projects of his own making. When the prodigal returns, Ashley is beside herself with the perfection of Madeleine, taking upon herself the blame for one of Peg's gewgaws knocked off a wall so that 'Peg will like you.' Madeleine's kiss on the cheek for the sullen Johnny, clearly not pleased by his brother's visit, is returned with a demand for cigarettes.
Ashley immediately takes over Madeleine ('Let's play beauty parlor!') who graciously enjoys the younger woman's attentions, but as the visit progresses and she fights a New York gallery long distance for David Wark's (Frank Hoyt Taylor, "Big Fish") work, she is also discovering that placed within his Southern Baptist origins, her husband is a foreigner she maybe never knew.
Morrison's brilliant direction finds an off kilter tone in MacLachlan's story that allows awe to clash with bewilderment and love to coexist with withdrawal and betrayals. He opens his film with a montage of Carolina 'hollerin',' a regional yodelling that is a form of art as well as communication. Wark's naive art, Civil War depictions, is steeped in sexual and religious symbolism, which could represent the known and unknown sides of George (Wark even paints George's face into one of his paintings). Clearly Madeleine and George have a great sex life (sounds of their lovemaking from 'the baby's' room is heard in both George's parents' and his brother's bedroom), but Madeleine is astonished when he sings a hymn at a Church supper. Madeleine had a love at first sight moment when she first met George in her gallery. When she asked what he thought of a painting (created by an autistic artist), his reply, 'It makes me happy, but I'm going to buy the one with the UFO,' didn't sound like the words of a little boy until retrospect sets in. We'd filtered them through the perspective of the worldly art gallery owner.
And Madeleine's relationship with every member of her husband's family is equally complicated and misinterpreted. She tries to help Johnny with schoolwork, but he thinks she's condescending (in fact, Madeleine's cigarette sneaking bonds her to her husband's family), then thinks she's coming on. Eugene is quietly supportive, until a devastating late scene, where a casual comment is made suggestive by Madeleine's appreciative laugh. Peg never really gives her a chance, maybe recognizing that Madeleine's citified sophistication will eventually outshine her elder son's charisma. Only Ashley is completely accepting and proves to be the biggest surprise of all. Ashley's character is introduced in close-up, a cut away from Peg that makes her pert and open face appear to be a flashback to a younger, more trusting version of her mother-in-law.
Amy Adams is sure to be the most talked about actor in this cast, and her ebullient performance is certainly a breakthrough, but this entire ensemble just clicks. Davidtz is able to project the outsider as an honestly decent person interested in her new family if perplexed by them and Nivola is perfect as the amiably sexy enigma who is defined only by what others cast upon him. Benjamin McKenzie keeps Johnny cocooned within his own, thick, haze, seemingly nothing but a complete boor, so that's it is unexpectedly moving to see how quickly he reacts to something which might please Ashley, only to sink again behind frustration, resentment and failure. In counterpoint, Scott Wilson paints Eugene of the 'still waters run deep' mode so that his final retreat into conservative disapproval is a shock. Celia Weston's Peg is set in her ways, protective of her family and suspicious of outsiders. Weston's downturned mouth is a continual affront to all but her son and the husband who claims to understand her, and her rejection of Madeleine at a climatic family moment spins the woman right into her own orbit and out of her husband's.
What is most magical about "Junebug" is the sense that something is always festering below the surface. Morrison's quiet montages, which begin showing a progression of the empty rooms of Peg and Eugene's home, then continue into the out of doors, emphasize this, questioning the characters which do not inhabit them. Small touches ripple out with deeper meaning (in the film's final moments, note how Peg's ceramic bird, broken by Madeleine upon her arrival, is replaced by something that had been intended for the younger woman). And while the contrast between the diplomatic brat and her Southern in-laws could not be greater, Morrison never condescends to his characters, instead emphasizing the impact of history and geography on lifestyle.
The couple who head back to Chicago are a very different entity from the one which came. "Junebug" is a work of American art that may affect the viewer in the same way.
Trendy Chicago art gallery owner Madeline (Embeth Davidtz) has discovered a true American folk artist, David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), living just 30 minutes from the rural North Carolina home of husband, George’s (Alessandro Nivolo), family. She decides to combine business with pleasure and the couple sets off in their Volvo for the southern wilds to buy paintings and meet the family in “Junebug.”
Director Phil Morrison makes his feature debut with a script by longtime collaborator Angus MacLachlan that is a slice of southern Christian life, as cosmopolitan Madeline becomes a stranger in a strange land. Her plan is to secure a contract with Wark, have a visit with George’s family and head home ASAP. Her plans don’t work out once she enters this foreign world.
When they arrive, she isn’t prepared for the varied greetings from George’s family. Peg (Celia Weston), George’s mom, is immediately holds Madeline at arm’s length – it doesn’t help that Madeline repeatedly calls her Pat. This reticence is countered by Peg’s ultra-enthusiastic and very pregnant daughter-in-law, Ashley (Amy Adams), a bubbly, excited naïf whose non-stop chatter scarcely gives Madeline a chance to respond. She is married to blue-collar worker, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), a guy angry at the world for his own lack of ambition or ability. Rounding out this nuclear family is patriarch Eugene (Scott Wilson), who may be mentally troubled or simply taciturn.
The best thing by far is the tour de force performance by Amy Adams as chatterbox (but extremely lovable) Ashley. Her nonstop talk may be a nervous habit or, with Madeline, an overwhelming desire to be liked and loved by her sister-in-law. She conveys interest, kindness, insecurity, love and joy in equal measures and the actress does a brilliant job combining them all into a character that is greater than the sum of the parts. This could have been an annoying character but Adams makes her sweet.
Embeth Davidtz is credible as the sophisticated and distracted Madeline. Her visit to George’s family is a mere diversion for Madeline as she pursues the on-the-dotted-line signature of primitive artist Wark. Ashley’s devotion to her is a minor disruption, as is the girl’s imminent pregnancy, which will have a profound affect on Madeline’s marriage to George. The cool reserve that Davidtz imbues on her character is never really altered and I never empathized with Madeline. Alessandro Nivolo, as George, is a blank cipher, near emotionless and without personality, who suddenly realizes that his wife is a cold and conniving. Their marriage was based on lust, not love, at first sight.
Celia Weston, as Peg, does a fine job as the mistrustful, powerful, chain-smoking family matriarch who doesn’t take to her daughter-in-law, Madeline, too well. Scott Wilson gives Eugene an enigmatic quality that shows more intelligence and feeling, in the end, than we were led to believe. Benjamin McKenzie’s John is a sad, unlikable character who isn’t even capable of committing an act of kindness for Ashley – he comes across a TV program about meerkats, her favorite critter, but screws up trying to tape it for her. The actor is only given two faces, sullen anger and angry rage, but is effective in the role.
Southern life is shown in a stereotypical way to make the distinction between it and Madeline’s urbane world of art and refinement. One cliché scene done well is during Sunday meeting where George is asked to sing a hymn. Nivolo shows good voice and the scene is nicely handled by helmer Morrison
Amy Adams’s wonderful interpretation of Ashley is the main reason to see “Junebug.” It’s a performance that should be remembered come the end of the year. The stereotypical outsider look into fundamentalist southern Christian world is a bit too clichéd but the small, capable cast makes the best out of it. It’s a notable first work for Phil Morrison. I give it a B.
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