Film Review – Junebug
The most embarrassing part about being from the South is being from the South. I would know. The gossip, the swapping of cornbread recipes, the way everyone says one thing and means “I hate you,” all make the South a place Outsiders don’t seem to understand. Therefore it was with severe anxiety and a full bottle of Xanax I settled in to see Junebug (2005), the story of a man’s Southern homecoming to let his new wife meet the family.
The film begins in an art gallery, and is where we see North Carolina native George Johnston (Alessandro Nivola) meet worldly art dealer Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz). He’s the charming, handsome-faced, Southern golden boy. She’s the determined professional with a warming smile and the British accent to match. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, and they get married.
Six months later, Madeleine travels with her new husband to North Carolina to pursue the brilliant, but peculiar, folk painter David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor). The newlyweds seize the opportunity to not only sign the artist, but to also sneak in a visit with George’s family.
The couple is greeted by the mother, Peg (Celia Weston), who decided she wouldn’t like Madeleine based on Southern principle: women who are thin, pretty, and smart are the work of the devil. The father, Eugene (Scott Wilson), is withdrawn, often retreats to his woodworking shed, and is a strong believer in not saying anything unless it means something. The sullen younger brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie), is constantly on edge, and still lives at home with his wife and high school sweetheart, Ashley (Amy Adams). Ashley is about a hundred months pregnant, heartbreakingly innocent, and is forever plagued with seeing the best in people.
Let me interject for a moment and tell you why I detest most movies set in the South: 1. Their accents are horrible and sound like Hick Nation. 2. Most movies depict Southerners as kooky characters with little emotional depth.
You will find none of that in Junebug.
With the family reunited and everyone making their judgments about Madeleine, the spot-on work of director Phil Morrison gets its chance to wow. The effortless exploration of the family captures Morrison’s attention to real familial energy. In a Southern setting, it’s also easy for dialogue to fall apart like a $2 watch. The crafted dialogue by writer Angus MacLachlan speaks of ease, natural unfolding, and local flare.
George hasn’t been “home” in three years and Madeleine is the outsider, which has the potential to create a witch’s brew of Awkward and Resentment. Ashley feels neither, and ambushes Madeleine with enthusiastic, naïve questions about everything in her life, where she’s lived, and how she grew up. Madeleine slaps on a smile and humors her. This is only the beginning of Madeleine’s introduction to the family, and she’s in for a long ride. Being the polar opposite of Ashley, Johnny does what Johnny does best—hides from the family. Peg doesn’t know what to make of Madeleine, and Eugene interacts by looming in and out of doorways.
In the midst of trying to sign the eccentric artist, Madeleine experiences not only a baby shower for Ashley, but a down-home church supper. The entire town is in attendance at the church supper, and it is expected that George sings for the crowd. Without any hesitation, George stands in the middle of the room and releases an a capella hymn. This scene exposes George’s roots in the rawest form, and Madeleine’s face shows curiosity and shock. In a way, she is seeing her husband for the first time.
The conflict peaks when two events happen at once—Ashley goes i to labor, and Madeleine has one last opportunity to convince the artist David Wark to sign with her, and not with a New York art gallery. Madeleine wants to pursue the artist, but George feels Madeleine belongs at the hospital with the family. Since when is family so important to George? He was able to get married without them, right? If Ashley had gone into labor sooner, or later, would George have flown in from Chicago for the delivery? When George is home, he plays the family game. Madeleine ultimately chooses the artist, explaining how important it is to her.
Junebug captures the complexity of family secrets, the wonder and sadness of small towns, and the heartache associated with going home again. The acting, the dialogue, and the camera’s exploration depict something most films undeniably fail at realizing: truth. The film reminds us that family problems are ongoing, intricate, and dense. The Golden Boy’s homecoming isn’t enough to solve them, as George adds his own dimension to the family’s struggle. Families do not simply forgive and forget; families endure and persist to maintain their sense of place.
Final Grade: A