Meet The Family (Film Review: “Junebug”)

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A modest little movie that rises to the ranks of minor masterpiece, Junebug is one of the most critically acclaimed and loved films in recent memory, and the performance that put Amy Adams’ star squarely on the map. This film will quite simply steal your heart.

SnapShot Plot

When Junebug made its sly arrival in 2005, critics such as Roger Ebert and Stephen Holden (NY Times) hailed it as a revelation in nuanced acting and direction. It’s the role that earned Amy Adams her first Oscar nomination and the film that also predicted spectacular careers for its director and screenwriter. But more on that later.

Junebug is a gentle homecoming tale in which North meets South and Big City meets Small Town. It’s about a newly married couple from Chicago, George and Madeleine whose whirlwind courtship hasn’t left much time to get to know each other beyond their intense romantic and physical passion. They meet at Madeleine’s ‘outsider’ gallery (she features untrained artists whose works speak of naturalistic, raw and primitive talent) and a week later, marry. Madeleine, a sophisticated citizen of the world, is played with an airy, smiling tenderness by Embeth Davidtz (Mad Men; Schindler’s List; Bridget Jones’s Diary). All she knows about her husband George’s background is that he left his rural home in the North Carolina pines long ago and hasn’t looked back. It’s been three years since he’s seen his family, but when Madeleine learns that the reclusive, eccentric back-woods artist she’s been pursuing lives not too far away from George’s family, the couple decides to kill two birds with one stone, and down they go for Madeleine to meet the family and nab her country artist.

When they reach the house, an entire cornucopia of characters awaits. It’s immediately clear, for example, that George is the apple of his mother’s eye and the ‘golden boy’ of not only his family but the God-fearing community he left behind. The scene in a church prayer dinner in which George gets up to sing a beloved hymn is priceless in the expression on Madeleine’s face as she witnesses a side to her husband she knew nothing about. If the character of George (slyly portrayed by the riveting Alessandro Nivola) is a study in elusiveness, his family is decidedly not. George’s parents Eugene and Peg (perfectly cast in veteran actors Scott Wilson and Celia Weston) reflect a completely believable marriage via the simplest exchanges and expressions which convey a lifetime of joys, sorrows, and the normal markers of family life.

George’s angry younger brother Johnny (in an unnerving and sullen performance by Ben McKenzie) has moved back home with his pregnant wife, Ashley, who’s due to pop any day. Put simply, Ashley is the heart and soul of the movie, end stop. Amy Adams is so dazzling and translucent in her capture of this buoyant character that you can’t take your eyes off her, and her immersion in the role makes you forget the superstar she’s become, she’s that good. Her entrance in the film – a paused close-up of Ashley’s wide eyed and expectant face – sets the entire tone of not only her character but the whole movie. These people are not typecast jokes or clichés. Adams has said of her character that people write Ashley off as being naive or stupid, but that she believes instead that “Ashley made a choice that she would be a light, and that she would be joyful”.

The humor is abundant but it doesn’t come at the expense of anyone’s self respect in Junebug. That couldn’t be more heartbreakingly true than a scene toward the end of the film, between Ashley and George, in which pain and loss mix with a sense of the irreverent that will linger always in your memory. It’s the hallmark moment of the whole picture.

 

“God loves you just the way you are but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.”

Parting Shot

In this his directorial debut 15 years ago, Phil Morrison (himself a product of a small town in North Carolina) created a close to perfect movie in Junebug, and then fell off the map for nine years until his return to directing in the 2013 film, All is Bright (starring Paul Rudd and Paul Giamatti). In Junebug, his use of long establishing shots (of the street, the house, the pines) affectionately evoke the geography and tempo of the rural South compared to the big city beat of the Urban Midwest. The collaboration on Junebug with writer, Angus Maclachlan, serves up a place and its people finely crafted, with nuanced dialog whose gems are more muttered than pronounced (except in the case of Ashley, who announces her every thought with bright-eyed excitement).

In the pantheon of breakout roles, Amy Adams’s work on Junebug is resplendent, and she’s always referred to as ‘stealing the picture’ but despite how true that feels, it’s reason is because of the hidden natures of the rest of the characters. As in the scene when Madeleine comments to Eugene that his wife is “a very strong personality.” He simply replies, “That’s just her way. She hides herself. She’s not like that inside.” Pause. “Like most.” It’s these quiet moments in which you find yourself drawn like a moth to the clear glimpses of light in these utterances.

Its often been said – like the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel – that You Can’t Go Home Again. On a certain level, this rings true in the film as we see that George no longer belongs to the place and the people who raised him. Yet in their midst, and to the amazement of Madeleine, he changes back to his roots like a modern day shape-shifter, especially in his finger-wagging condemnation of her ambition in the light of family need. We, like Madeleine, are the real outsiders and we see everyone most truly through her eyes. Maybe he’s right, or maybe he’s being his truest self in the throwaway last line of the movie as they’re on the freeway headed back to the big city. It’s a mystery, I suppose.

Junebug is presently streaming on Netflix.

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YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIoGtTgPbnI

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