REVIEW: Junebug [2005]

“I just wanted something good to come out of all this”

Junebug was one of those films that came out of the 2005 festival circuit with buzz galore. Unfortunately I never got to see it until randomly passing it by on Starz-On-Demand, in widescreen no less. This was a temptation that wouldn’t be quelled and so I sat down with high expectations. The movie not only lived up to those, but exceeded them as well. You don’t get character pieces as well acted and written as Junebug often. Every performance is amazing and real, and the filmmakers allow the audience to see what transpires as it does, without dumbing anything down or commercializing the family’s life. It’s indie through and through.

Being a former “Upright Citizens Brigade” director, Phil Morrison fares much better here than Peyton Reed did with The Break Up. Between this film and his credits directing the new “I’m a Mac…I’m a PC” and VW “Safe Happens” crash commercials, I see great things in his film career to come. Morrison shows true heart here with a lot going on as city life clashes with the country. He deftly handles the characters’ interactions with each other and the differences that both worlds have on issues such as trust. Whereas Madeleine, a world traveler and educated, successful woman, can have all the trust in the world for her husband’s southern family and artist she is courting on business, they see her as someone wanting something. They can’t trust her because she is an outsider; her kindness must be masking some ulterior motive. Embeth Davidtz, as Madeleine, portrays this conflict perfectly; she is a strong person and outgoing to a fault, however, her touchy-feely attitude is construed as being sexual, having a sense of entitlement and betterment to her lesser, and a devil in sheeps clothing mantra. Her husband George, played with nice duality between old and new world attitudes by Alessandro Nivola, knows she is just a nice, caring woman, but his family is very conservative and not easily swayed to open themselves to strangers. His mother Peg believes her to have tricked him into marriage and not really knowing who her son is, his father is a simple man who just wants the best for everyone, (she is family), not quite picking sides but instead staying back to see what happens, and his brother Johnny is a confused adolescent who has gone into the adult world prematurely and sees his brother’s success as a testament to his own failures.

Even though there is not much in the way of plot, newly married couple go down to the groom’s family’s house while the bride tries to secure a lucrative art deal with a painter. While there, each side turns the other’s life upside down, causing a need for change and compromise that just isn’t as possible as one might think; Chicago and North Carolina are very far apart. This story is just the bottom layer of many as each actor adds nuance and feeling, driving every minute to its final conclusion of the couple going back north to their home. Davidtz is stunning as the strong-willed woman who, while thinking these simpleminded folk will be easy to mold to her needs, discovers it is she who is out of her element and naïve to the ways of love and family. Nivola shows great range as the city man with a physical relationship to his new bride, yet deeply religious when visiting home, and always watching out for his flesh and blood no matter what. The scene where he sings a hymn shows two worlds colliding into each other and foreshadows the notion that people are not what they seem when out of the environment they are otherwise known to be comfortable in. Benjamin McKenzie is powerful as the troubled Johnny who is full of both love and resentment for those around him. He knows his limitations and gets angry when others try to better him, because he feels condescended to. His stubbornness won’t allow anyone to get close to him as any instance of compassion is seen as belittlement. Johnny loves his wife, as seen in the meerkat scene, yet can’t allow her inside his emotions.

Frank Hoyt Taylor is great as the link between worlds for Madeleine. He is the real reason she is there, as she wants the rights to distribute his Outsider Art: crude, vulgar, yet emotionally powerful paintings of war. Taylor plays him as a simple man, slightly touched with dementia, yet longing for what he knows. He does not care about the money or the fame, he creates for himself and God, and that is something a gallery director trying to outbid a NYC establishment can never understand. While Madeleine believes she is going to take care of him in the art world, she just can’t see that the only way to do that would be to let him alone and leave him to do his work in peace without prying eyes watching. These southerners live for the land and their families, not material gains, shown most effectively by the father Eugene, played by Scott Wilson. He realizes that people aren’t what they initially appear to be and has the most open mind to the thought of his son’s quick courtship to marriage. Also, he knows that some things are sacred to those he can trust, like his woodworking skills and his wife’s knitting. These are skills on par with Taylor’s painting and he doesn’t want them to be exploited as he is.

The real heart and soul of the film, however, lies inside Amy Adams’ Ashley. She is full of life, naïveté, and love. Her pregnancy is seen, by her, as the act that will save her troubled husband from the funk he’s been in for the past two years. Maybe a little joy is all that is needed for Johnny to once again see the world as good and not a series of hardships that forced him to quit high school and support his spouse. Adams is full of hope and trust for all those that enter her life. She is the only one to see Madeleine as a human being and not a monster trying to ruin what was left of their family. Probably holding the most insight of anyone, she carries the rest of the film on her shoulders, as well as those of her unborn child. That baby will change everyone for either good or bad. George realizes this and knows that he must stick by his family no matter what happens. He also knows that his wife is not quite able to do that as the educated life she lived has made her somewhat cold to the bigger picture of things. Once the climax surrounding Adams’ character is revealed, the viewer gets to see what the real makeup of each person truly is.

Junebug is a revelation of sorts. One cannot leave the film without having been changed in some small way by the proceedings. Emotions run high and family values are tested. Morrison has crafted a lyrical poem of life with a scarce but powerful palette. Even the tranquility of the trees in the North Carolina backyard is a sight to be ingrained in your consciousness. The quiet holds both joy and pain in its silence.

Junebug 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

[1] Left: Ben McKenzie as Johnny; Right: Embeth Davidtz as Madeleine; Photo by: Robert Kirk/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved.
[2] Amy Adams as Ashley; Photo by: Robert Kirk/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved.


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