Movies about dysfunctional families in small-town America have become a dime a dozen, but this one is worth considerably more than that. In “Junebug” Angus MacLachlan and Phil Morrison have crafted an artfully simple, quietly perceptive movie peopled by characters who–with a single exception–are richly observed, distinctive without becoming caricatures. Though ragged around the edges technically, emotionally it’s extremely satisfying.
“Junebug” shares something, strangely enough, with Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”–otherwise a very different sort of piece. One of its major elements is a baby that’s never been born, but represents the ideal of family. (As does the dead baby in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” too.) But the take here on the theme isn’t nearly as bleak, though it’s not quite sunny, either. The locale is North Carolina, where Chicago art gallery owner Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), English by birth, and her smooth if somewhat bland new husband George (Alessandro Nivola) drive so that she can try to sign a local artist named David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor) whose primitivist paintings she’s sure will cause a sensation. Almost as an afterthought they’ll visit George’s family, whom Madeleine has never met. Their reception is curious. Though Madeleine tries strenuously to fit in, dour mother Peg (Celia Weston) isn’t terribly welcoming, thinking that her older son (whom she adores) and his new wife really aren’t compatible, and father Eugene (Scott Wilson) is oddly withdrawn and uncommunicative. Even worse, George’s younger brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie), a surly fellow who seems happy only in his job as a shipping clerk at a local mega-store, is positively hostile, apparently nursing some old unspecified grudge against the returnee and envious of his success. In fact the only person who seems genuinely, indeed extravagantly, friendly to Madeleine is Johnny’s pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams)–it’s she who plans to name her child Junebug–who seems unable to stop talking long enough to catch a breath (or to think about what she’s saying until it’s left her mouth) and immediately adopts her new sister-in-law as her best friend. Madeleine’s effort to persuade the decidedly peculiar Wark–a scene-stealing turn by Taylor–to commit to her rather than a New York rival is portrayed with great good humor as well as a dark twist (and no little perceptivity about homely Southern folk art), but the meat of “Junebug” lies on the domestic side, where Madeleine discovers that her husband’s background is terra incognita to her–a sequence in which she’s astonished to hear him take the lead in singing a hymn is an amazingly revealing moment, beautifully played by all. The climax of the narrative comes when Madeleine must make a choice between one last effort to woo Wark and accompanying George to the hospital where Ashley’s been taken to give birth (occasioning a predictably comic scene of disarray as the family load her into the car, done with a freshness that belies the conventionality); and the film ends with mixed emotions and no easy resolutions.
“Junebug” is generically a fish-out-of-water story, but though Davidtz is excellent as the sophisticate trying to come to terms with a distinctly unfamiliar environment (and desperate to make a good impression within it), it’s the milieu that makes it so remarkable, drawn as it is with rare texture and sensitivity. The members of George’s family are depicted with a good deal of gentle humor, but also without condescension; they’re real people, flawed and recognizably human, rather than cartoons, and the relationships between Peg and Eugene on the one hand and Johnny and Amy on the other are both complicated and understated. All are exceptionally well played, too, with Adams earning the greatest audience reaction with her vivacity but McKenzie providing an unsettling mixture of seething anger and vulnerability, Weston registering a commanding sort of frumpiness and Wilson continuing his career resurgence by exuding a quiet, undemonstrative dignity. The sole weakness in the film, in fact, is the linking character, George, who’s never very clearly defined (we’re not even told what his profession is, or why he’s living in Chicago). It’s also vague whether his feelings for his family are real or feigned; certainly they seem authentic in the time he spends with Ashley in the hospital, but his very last line in the film seems to belie his earlier actions. The ambiguity may well be intentional, but unlike the complexity in the other characters, George’s opacity isn’t revealing as much as it is frustrating.
But while this is a flaw, it’s not a fatal one. Nor is the barely functional cinematography of Peter Donahue or a music score that incongruously mixes Vivaldi with more ordinary themes. Despite the problems this unassuming little film is one of the most honest, revealing portraits of familial love and friction to hit the screen in years.