October 3, 2005

Junebug4 1/2 Stars

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In recent years, the meet-the-in-laws shtick has become a reliable Hollywood staple. With Meet the Parents and its inevitable disappointing follow-up and the unnecessary Ashton Kutcher, Bernie Mac vehicle Guess Who, filmmakers keep coming back to the old paragon with nothing new to say. Phil Morrison’s Junebug, however, about a Chicago man who returns home to North Carolina to introduce his wife to his family, treats the in-law routine with an uncommon depth and restraint that Hollywood wouldn’t dare. It’s a profoundly affecting film that, in its moody, subdued direction and brilliant ensemble performances understands the lineaments of small town life.

Junebug begins in Chicago, where Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), an art dealer, meets George (Alessandro Nivola) at an art auction. The two fall in love and get married a week later. For one reason or another, George’s family doesn’t attend. Months later, Madeleine is called out to North Carolina to recruit an outsider artist named David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), a harmless, but eerie anachronism who spouts evangelism and paints bizarre phallic recreations of battle scenes from the Civil War. Madeleine and George decide to stay with George’s family, who lives moments from David’s home. Madeleine will meet the parents and sign the artist.

What happens when Madeleine and George arrive is the stuff of high cinematic achievement. While George recedes into the background and disappears until the end of the film, the willowy, urbane Madeleine meets his troubled southern family so steeped in the rhythms of small-town life, it’s completely unaware of it. The characters in George’s family are so finely drawn, so heartfelt, not a moment passes in this film where you doubt for second the authenticity of their world. Morrison’s film almost feels like a play, its emphasis often not on what his actors say, but how they say it and how they look when they say it.

While Morrison’s film has no true protagonist, its main subject is Madeleine’s endearing interactions with George’s family. Most prominent is Ashley, the winsome Pollyanna who falls in love with Madeleine the moment she sees her. Played by Amy Adams in a performance that won her an award at Sundance, Ashley rattles off ten questions before Madeleine has a chance to respond to her first. Spellbound by everything about these strangers, she wants to know everything about these people, “everything,” as Ashley puts it, “that makes you tick.” Ashley’s high school sweetheart husband Johnny (Ben McKenzie), George’s hostile younger brother, isn’t so impressed. He’s the kind who probably has never left his home town and, jealous and emotionally frustrated, can’t help but feel inferior. The last thing he wants to hear about are Madeleine’s salad days in Africa and Japan or her Chicago art gallery.

With Ashley pregnant, Johnny is going through a personal crisis of his own that Madeleine and George’s arrival brings to the fore. As Madeleine enters the lives of George’s family, we see their unresolved tensions and repressed problems come out on the screen. George’s mother Peg (Celia Weston) doesn’t believe Madeleine is the right woman for her son, and her husband, Eugene (Scott Wilson), is a silent man sleepwalking through life, withdrawn to his wood-carving, his relationship with his family understated to the point of nonexistence.

Like Madeleine and her quiet, sensitive acceptance of George’s family, Junebug never passes judgment on its characters. Where a lesser film would play up city-country incongruities, Junebug doesn’t fall victim to played-out stereotypes – it’s a film that has sympathy for all of its characters, that understands their problems, and refuses to tidy everything up in two hours or less.

Archived article by Jason Remsen
Sun Contributor