dir: Phil Morrison
[img_assist|nid=912|title=See how the other half live|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=679]
Junebug is a strange slice-of-life about a bunch of people that you otherwise wouldn’t get to see in a movie. Of course they’re actors acting in the roles they’re given, but the roles themselves are of simple people living simple lives.
Into their simple lives, which meander along in a town in North Carolina, comes the number one son of the family George (Alessandro Nivola) and his new wife Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz). Though they’ve been together for six months, Madeleine clearly has no idea about the kind of family that George comes from. She herself is an art dealer with practically no clues about the South. The real reason they’re so way below the Mason-Dixon line is that Madeleine, who deals in ‘outsider’ art, is trying to get the works of a true Southern lunatic called David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor).
George is clearly the golden boy of his family, but we never really figure out why. He gets a surprisingly small amount of dialogue in a film that you’d think either himself or Madeleine would be the main characters of. In truth it is enough of an ensemble piece that no one character seems to dominate proceedings.
George’s younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie) is seething with rage at George’s return, and is so inexpressive and inarticulate that you’d think he was retarded. He has married his childhood sweetheart Ashley (Amy Adams) who lives with them as well, who is also heavily pregnant.
Ashley, in contrast to all of her husband’s family, cannot shut the fuck up for more than a few seconds at a time. She desperately wants to be liked by Madeleine, and sees her as incredibly worldly and glamorous, which I guess she is in comparison. Every thought that appears in her empty little head is vomited forth without any filtering, as if to compensate for the people around her smothered into silence by their inability to express themselves.
It is clear that Madeleine and George don’t really know each other that well, and it comes as something of a test to see how their image of each other can survive after interacting with George’s family. Their response to the tensions or difficulties around them is to have sex like bunny rabbits whenever they can, since their primary mechanism for communicating with each other is still sex.
A scene at the church get-together highlights how little Madeleine knows about her husband. When he is asked by the pastor to get up and sing a hymn, which he belts out to the glory of the Lord, Madeleine watches him with this stunned expression on her face as if he’d just told her he was the one that blew Kennedy’s head off from the grassy knoll.
George’s parents, Peg (Celia Weston) and Eugene (Scott Wilson) don’t make matters easy in the house either. Peg clearly loves her Number One Son, and clearly as well doesn’t think Madeleine is worthy of him. Her constant gripes about Madeleine’s lack of wifely skills and thinness underscore her disdain for the daughter-in-law who will never live up or down to her expectations. Eugene is, as well, a gruntingly taciturn man, but clearly only cares if George is happy or not, and thus doesn’t mind if he doesn’t get Madeleine.
This kind of kitchen sink drama is ripe for melodrama, or for being the kind of tired and histrionic flick that Hollywood does so well and so often. They avoid all of that, though that shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of resolution or realism. In truth, many people never get along with their in-laws, especially if they’re from completely different worlds. We are given the impression, though they never speak any words to that effect to each other, that George and Johnny will never get along, whether because of something that has happened or because of who they are. And they’re family.
George tells Madeleine over the phone after a family crisis, about how family is the most important thing, despite the fact that he hasn’t seen his family in three years. When their visit ends, we presume they won’t be making the drive from Chicago to North Carolina any time soon either. So many elements of their lives, of everyone’s lives are never spelled out, though they are hinted at by the performances.
We expect the hick family to look like aliens to the sophisticated Madeleine, but she does her utmost to like them and be liked by them. The physical and verbal difference in expressing and accepting affection leads to some of the more interesting and squirm-inducing scenes in the film.
The majority of this flick comes across in performances, which are uniformly excellent, less so than dialogue. This isn’t a talky flick, nor is it a meeting-your-insane- inlaws comedy in the vein of the Meet the Fockers or The Family Stone. These people are different. They aren’t going to accept each other completely, they’re not going to reach an understanding. They’re going to interact for a while, and then go on to their regular lives. No-one should mistake such a flick for cinema verite or the flicks of Ingmar Bergman, but it’s more true to life than most flicks.
Which means, as well, that the characters aren’t always sympathetic, or even likable. But that’s a small price to pay for such a well-crafted, keenly observed experience.
On top of all this ‘how flawed communication is between people’ stuff is, there is the added insanity of Madeleine trying to latch onto the works of a certifiable lunatic. He draws child-like (in their artistic skills) but obscene paintings of Civil War battles and slave uprisings where they rise up against their masters and impale them to death on their massive genitalia. David Wark, named after the director of Birth of a Nation, DW Griffiths, is an amazingly insane character. Some of the words he is given to recite are simply priceless.
One of the film’s strongest scenes involves an opportunity that Madeleine has to completely block the efforts of her competitors to influence Wark by repeating only one word, but she chooses not to exploit the situation, and it’s her best scene. Embeth Davidtz, an actress who’s been working for a long time, gives a career best performance here, which is a shame since practically no-one saw this film.
It’s an interesting way to spend an hour and a half, with these mundane characters free of quirks and one-liners, but suffused with gentle humanity. Interesting but not easy.
7 out of 10
“Where would I be if I was a screwdriver?” where indeed, Junebug.