Junebug (2005): Impressive Debut Featuring Amy Adams in Star-Making Performance

Sundance Film Fest 2005–One of the best films at this year’s Sundance Dramatic Competition (my choice for grand jury prize), “Junebug” announces the feature debut of a talented director, Phil Morrison.

Selected for Cannes Festival’s prestigious sidebar Critics Week, “Junebug” is now being released by Sony Classics.

Working with the paradigm of the outsider (the fish out of water), in this case, a beautiful art dealer who travels from Chicago to North Carolina to pursue a painter and meet the family of her new husband, “Junebug” centers on the familial and cultural clashes that result from this unexpected encounter.

Boasting sharp characterization, crisp dialogue, and meticulous attention to physical detail, “Junebug” is a wonderful sampler of regional cinema. The various narrative strands establish significant links with other films about familial tensions and siblings rivalry that arise during reunions, such as “In the Bedroom” and “Pieces of April.”

Set over one long, intense weekend, the story details how the presence of a seductive urban woman challenges the cultural and personal mores and affects the carefully created but fragile equilibrium of one middle-class Southern home.

The tale of an individual invading a seemingly calm space from the outside could be set anywhere, but this family with its dynamics and socio-economic make-up, is most particular. Indeed, the characters, the house, the land, are very specific in both time and place. Deliberate pacing and slow contemplativeness, qualities associated with South, inform “Junebug,” as well as the unique culture that defines the South and sets it apart from other regions.

The South defines itself in a self-reflexive way with peculiar yet quintessential traits. Since both writer and director are natives, they offer a privileged inside look, down to the ways the kitchen and local church look and feel. A delicate, non-denigrating humor and true feeling of this particular locale mark the whole film.

The film’s country music, with songs like “No Desire to Roam” and “I Long To See the Old Folks,” illuminate its central motif, that to be in the family is to stay near, and that George’s desire to be gone, evident since he was a kid, is perceived as betrayal. George’s family had flattered him and wooed him to stay, but he still left. And now, the film implies, there’s a price to be paid, and some serious consequences to first deserting his family and then coming back home.

George (Alessandro Nivola), the elder brother and favored son, is the Golden Boy who has always shone bright, always “succeeded” in the larger world by his charm and by his talents. People have always been drawn to his looks and smile. They have projected onto George what they imagine their idea of “a star” is, but very few actually know him. If he’s troubled, it’s a result of the realization that he is not perfect and he is not what people see.

George’s younger brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie) is the one family member that has experienced the most change since George left home. The family feels that if George wanted to, he could have Johnny’s life. But Johnny could never be George, and he feels George is an obliterating presence. Johnny is living back in his old bedroom in his parents’ house with his pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams), attempting to get his high school diploma but disregarding Ashley’s needs completely.

Johnny has never been the favored son, and he feels like a failure. The arrival of the Golden Boy and his beautiful wife throws all his perceived weaknesses into sharper focus. At the same time, Johnny sees through his brother, and knows that George isn’t what his mother, his wife, and the pastor declare him to be.

The story deals with the strained efforts of the family’s various members to accept an outsider like Madeleine into their own. There’s an intentional metaphor in the story that parallels the sought after “outsider” artwork, and artists as something special and valuable. Madeleine’s (and to a lesser extent George’s) distance and perspective may allow appreciation, but they also prevent direct engagement. This dichotomy is one of the story’s thematic touchstones. Madeleine says she has “loved the South” and has felt affinity with it since she was a child. This draws her to the art and culture of the South. But her beliefs and actions are challenged, when she becomes entangled in conflicts with members of the family.

In a scene full of sexual tensions, Johnny sees through Madeleine, telling her that she’s no better than they are. A certain superiority is inherent in Madeleine, and her love of ‘folk art’ may be more problematic than she is willing to admit. Ambiguity prevails at the end of the film, as it’s not entirely clear how much Madeleine had learned from the experience or how much had she had really changed.

Ashley, the family’s newest, most dynamic member, is the only one determined to make Madeleine feel welcome. For Ashley, Madeleine represents the ideal woman: She is beautiful, thin, smart, kind, cultured, successful, and sophisticatedand she has George, the icon. Ashley’s heart is mighty, courageous, honest, and naive. She immediately loves Madeleine, feeling she has gained a new sister. Ashley is the type of woman that, if the masks were to slip and she was to see Madeleine and George’s weaknesses, she would still love them.

Though George is not insensitive, he seems to be the least concerned with his family’s “cold shoulder” attitude toward Madeleine. George would not have come back if Madeleine had not needed to see the artist. If it weren’t for Madeleine, George would have found more excuses to stay away. It’s been three years since his last visit home, and you get the impression that only a major family crisis would have forced him to return.

The film’s working titles, “Divertimento” and “Look Away, Look Away, Look Away” (in reference to “Dixie”), indicate the meanings intended by the writer, before settling on its current and apt title, “Junebug.”

This low-budgeter shot for 20 days in Winston-Salem and Pilot Mountain, North Carolina. A couple days before shooting began, all the lawns were covered with junebugs; they can be seen flying in some shots.

Very much an ensemble piece, scripter MacLachlan gives each of the characters rich exterior and inner lives. The acting, particularly of the three women, is superb. Amy Adams, who first garnered attention in Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” as Leonardo DiCaprio’s adoring fianc, gives a stunningly fresh performance, deservedly cited by the jury at Sundance.

Madeleine is the most accomplished part played by Embeth Davidtz since her breakout role, as the doomed Jewish maid in “Schindler’s List”; her beauty, grace, and natural elegance are major assets for her role. As the concerned and protective matriarch, torn by ambivalent feelings, the terrific character actress Celia Weston (who’s from N.C.) is just as convincing here as she was in “In the Bedroom.”

Born in Winston-Salem, N.C. in 1968, Phil Morrison attended NYU, where his student project “Tater Tomater” was based on Angus MacLachlan’s story. After showings at the 1992 Sundance Festival and on American Playhouse, it was distributed by First Run Features and was one of the few shorts selected by the Museum of Modern Art for its First Run retrospective in 2001.