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JunebugReview - Junebug
DVD
by Phil Morrison (Director)
Sony Pictures Classics, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
May 23rd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 21)

Junebug is an entrancing movie on a rather familiar theme of a newly-wed coming to meet her in-laws. Madeleine has recently met and married George. They both live in Chicago, but they have very different backgrounds. She has lived all over the world, while he is from a small town in North Carolina. She owns an art gallery specializing in outsider art, and her scouts find a previously undiscovered artist in North Carolina who does powerful work. Madeleine and George go down to stay with his family so she can persuade the bizarre folk painter to sign a contract with her gallery. George's sister-in-law Ashley, who lives with her husband Johnny with his parents, is 9 months pregnant. She never stops talking and is so full of enthusiasm she seems childlike. George's mother Peg is disapproving of his marriage and while polite, she doesn't much like Madeleine, wondering why her son chose her. The men in the house hardly speak: George's father Eugene spends most of his time in the basement working on woodwork. Johnny sits around watching TV or sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper. He seems so immature as to be almost retarded, being so full of resentment about his successful brother and frustration with his situation, as well as not having finished high school. Even George, as soon as he is back home, reverts to type, standing around silently with a half-smile on his face. Madeleine is thrown into this family for a few days, and she doesn't understand Southern manners or the family dynamics, so she herself becomes an outsider. Even her relationship with George becomes strained as he becomes emotionally unavailable to her and she tries and fails to please her new mother-in-law.

The movie does a wonderful job at showing how Madeleine is a fish out of water in this strange environment. She has short hair and dresses differently from everyone else. At Ashley's baby shower, she sits in a room of mothers making chitchat, and when she is asked whether she has children, she has to say she doesn't. At the gathering in the church basement, she keeps her eyes open when everyone else is praying. She is amazed when the pastor asks George to sing a hymn, and even more amazed when he does it beautifully. When Ashley is in the hospital and all the rest of the family is with her, Madeleine goes off to negotiate with her artist. Some of these moments are very funny, but others are sad. The viewer's sympathies are torn: sometimes she seems like the only sane person around, while at other points, she seems manipulative, artificial, and self-serving.

Madeleine's relationship with the folk artist David Wark is the most problematic part of the story. Wark's pictures are disturbing, showing scenes of the Civil War with naked soldiers killing each other with their huge penises. He behaves oddly, never directly answering a question, and occasionally bursting out with odd sayings. He seems to be both profoundly religious and also racist. Yet Madeleine courts him so she can sell his pictures. She says she believes in him and his project of making the invisible visible, but it is hardly credible that she can remotely understand him, given that he is the apotheosis of a weird Southern sensibility and she can't even relate to George's family. Indeed, her words call into question her whole career, since she specializes in outsider art, yet she seems to crave to be accepted and successful.

The pace of the movie is slow, and Morrison occasionally brings it almost to a halt, showing someone asleep or doing almost nothing. The moments of communication, especially between men, are often non-verbal, with a nudge or a tap expressing deep sympathy. The acting is excellent: Embeth Davidtz is completely convincing as Madeleine, and Amy Adams manages to make Ashley's simplicity very charming. Even Ben McKenzie (a star on the TV show "The O.C.") is good as the juvenile Johnny. The music by Yo La Tengo is perfect.

The DVD contains some deleted scenes, which are fairly interesting, and there are some good audition tapes of McKenzie and Adams. The commentary is by Adams and Davidtz rather than the director, who apparently does not believe in compromising himself by talking about his work. The two women don't have much to say that illuminates the creative process, but their conversation is entertaining. The best extras are five short "behind the scenes" pieces shot on the set, showing the making of the film. There are some short interviews; Angus MacLachlan the writer of the screenplay, who talks about how important it was to shoot the film on location in Winston Salem, where they could get local extras; the actors talk about their characters, and we catch a few glimpses of the director at work.

Junebug is an unusual small budget movie exploring family dynamics and cultural differences, and is well worth seeing.

 

2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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