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Review: Junebug

Phil Morrison’s Junebug is the older, wiser sibling of home-for-the-holidays family melodramas like Pieces of April.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Phil Morrison’s Junebug is the older, wiser sibling of home-for-the-holidays family melodramas like Pieces of April. Married for six months, a Chicago gallery owner, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), has yet to meet her in-laws and it seems as if her husband George (Alessandro Nivola) hasn’t told her exactly why; though estranged from his family, George still seems friendly enough with them to have mailed them a wedding invitation. This premise strains for believability, but Junebug’s soulful inquiry suggests that the ties that bind—and often break families apart—are rooted to the ethos of one’s surroundings. The film is likely to be compared to drivel like The Myth of Fingerprints, but that would ignore the haunting ambiguities of Morrison’s sensitive study of the spirit and (in)hospitality of the South. When George drives Madeleine to North Carolina so she can visit an outsider artist, David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), whose paintings she wishes to exhibit, the couple stays with George’s family. Madeleine is ignored by George’s unfriendly parents and brother Johnny (The O.C.’s Ben McKenzie) but is befriended by her brother-in-law’s wife, Ashley (a wonderful Amy Adams, showing an incredible range of emotions), a hyperactive ditz who believes the baby she’s carrying can cure her husband’s perpetually bitter mood. Morrison understands that the people of the South feel very different from the people in the North, and his melancholic imagery and dissonant use of sound echoes this conflict. But Junebug shouldn’t be construed as some contrived depiction of culture clash, though it does seem to mend wounded red state/blue state relations: Even without the haughty Madeleine in the picture, George’s family still seems unhappy. Why they’re estranged is never clear, but such details aren’t important to Morrison—he’s more concerned with the way people, their surroundings, and the past communicate via some form of mystical osmosis, and he conveys this sensation with subtle narrative nuances and breathtaking visual textures. If there’s no reason to think Johnny cares for Ashley, look no further than the film’s finest moment for proof to the contrary: In the basement watching TV while his wife is having her baby shower upstairs, Johnny attempts to record a nature special on meerkats for Ashley only to rag on her out of frustration when he’s unable to do so. The Civil War-themed tableaux morts that inform Wark’s graphic sexual-political paintings and the book report Johnny needs to write on Huckleberry Finn make clear that the ghosts of the Civil War and slavery will always be part of the DNA of the people who live in the South, but it’s this scene that truly conveys how people allow themselves to become their own worst enemies.

Cast: Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Ben McKenzie, Amy Adams, Celia Weston, Frank Hoyt Taylor, Scott Wilson Director: Phil Morrison Screenwriter: Angus MacLachlan Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Buy: Video

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