The most memorable thing about Junebug’s baroque portrait of the Deep South isn’t the emotionally stunted family at its core, or the awkward interactions between that family and their worldly new in-law, or even the freaky racist paintings of the backwoods artist who compels the plot. No, it’s the uniformly outstanding cast.
But that’s followed closely by the collection of eager-indie-filmmaker mistakes made by director Phil Morrison, a novice who worked with the comedy troupe Upright Citizens’ Brigade before fashioning this domestic dramedy with screenwriter Angus MacLachlan. At Sundance this year it wowed the audiences, who then went outside and were wowed by the mountains, and then by a medium lattÃ©, and then by a dog on a leash. Though it’s got standout performances, bracing scenes and an undeniable dramatic charisma, it doesn’t have a memorable center'and there’s a whole lot of pretentious padding that must be discarded while reaching the good stuff.
For starters, Morrison has eliminated the background sound from many of his scenes, leaving the theater in silence for most of the outdoor shots. Anyone who’s been to the South knows there’s a bug symphony everywhere you go, so the preciousness dominates the scene. Morrison also repeatedly lingers on empty rooms in an Ozu-like attempt to convey loneliness and contemplation, but it only conveys a desire to be as studiously offbeat as Jim Jarmusch. And why would you make a riff on your traditional Southern upbringing, but score it with original music from indie rock gods Yo La Tengo, the pride of Hoboken? Well, because you want everybody to know what hip young filmmakers you are.
Yet Junebug is worth your time. It’s a dissonant film, the type made by people who think they’re supposed to film what they know and end up filming what they used to know. But it’s also filled with actors who have uniformly strong grasps on their characters. Morrison and MacLachlan are from North Carolina, and that’s where they send hipster married couple Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) and George (Alessandro Nivola) on a twofold mission: to visit George’s family, and to allow Chicago gallery owner Madeleine to bid for the services of an untrained painter (brilliantly played by Frank Hoyt Taylor) who covers his canvases with Civil War soldiers amid dog heads, computers and scrotums, among other knick-knacks.
They stay with George’s parents, who also put up his sullen brother (Ben McKenzie) and extremely pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), who immediately becomes fascinated with the tall, exotic, accented Madeleine. The ardor is mutual, as Madeleine’s two-cheek kisses and lingering hugs confuse the hell out of everybody.
Junebug also has the kind of screenplay where the supporting characters get much more attention than the protagonists. Madeleine spends most of the movie reacting to the insular family, while George inexplicably disappears for long stretches, leaving his new wife to fend for herself. Adams has been rightly lauded for her toothy-grinned, chatterbox performance, which nails the echoing insecurity behind people who can’t stop talking, but McKenzie (The O.C.) is just as good as the mercurial boy-husband who can’t stand the fact his life already has been decided, but can’t do anything about it, either. These guys are all over America’s small towns, and McKenzie gets it right down to the sad little blond mustache.
There’s not much plot, but it hinges on coincidence and a bit of Lifetime pathos. As a study in smart acting, Junebug is eminently watchable; as an examination of the South or a parable of red-state/blue-state differences, it can’t hold a candle to All the Real Girls, George Washington or even Rocky-in-a-feathered-hat Hustle & Flow. You’ll be humming the bouncy song over the closing credits (Syreeta’s infectious “Harmour Loveâ€) long after you’ve forgotten everything else about Junebug.