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Junebug (A Movie Review)

Updated: Oct 6, 2021


JUNEBUG (2005)

Starring Amy Adams, Embeth Davitz, Benjamin McKenzie, Alessandro Nivola, Frank Hoyt Taylor, Celia Weston, Scott Wilson, Amy Barefoot, Annette Beatty, Matt Besser, Beth Bostic, Jamie Castlebury, Carrie Daniel, Jeffrey Dean Foster, Katherine Foster, Teresa Fowler, Keith Harris, Victoria Jackson, Kevin Harlow Jasper, Tarra Jolly, David Kuhn, Laura Lashley, John Eddie McGee, John McGee, Dan McLamb, Jerry Minor, Will Oldham, Joanne Pankow, Adrian Roberts, Chuck Russell, Bobby Tisdale, Alicia Van Couvering, John A. Van Couvering, Caitlin Van Hecke, Jill Wagner and Gregory Wagoner.

Screenplay by Angus MacLachlan.

Directed by Phil Morrison.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. 107 minutes. Rated R.

Junebug totally gets the American cultural divides between the blue states and the red states. Unlike so much of the divide in these days, though, this movie doesn’t patronize either side or give either culture a free pass. All of the people here are right about some things, wrong about others, and if their lifestyles are different, it doesn’t mean they are better.

Junebug takes one such culture clash and lets us look at the people inside it, who they are, what they share and how they are alike and different. Embeth Davidtz plays Madeleine, a Chicago art dealer who specializes in finding untrained artists. One night at an auction, she meets a charming, urbane, handsome man named George (Alessandro Nivola) and after a whirlwind courtship, they get married. She knows he is from North Carolina but has never met George’s family. When Madeleine learns of an unknown artist named David Wark who has made it his life’s work to retell the story of the Civil War (as he sees it) on canvas, she decides they should visit George’s folks who live nearby. This way she can kill two birds with one stone.

Once she gets there, she realizes how much she does not know about her husband. He is a different man at home than he was in the city. He’s no longer the strong, sophisticated, outgoing man she thought she knew, back on North Carolina he retreats into himself, becoming awkward, shy and a little needy.

It turns out that he is the child of a strong-willed mother named Peg (Celia Weston) who keeps a mental checklist of all the mistakes that the Northerners make in her home. (She will never correct Madeleine when she mistakenly calls her Pat, but you know that she is inventorying every single time in her head.) George is in the middle of a feud with his brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), a bitter and angry retail worker who will only talk to George when he is ready to start an argument. Johnny is about to have a child with his high school sweetheart Ashley, he lives with his parents and he feels completely trapped.

The breakout performance is Amy Adams as Ashley. Ashley is one of those sainted, rare folks, the type who only sees the positive side. She is nine months pregnant in a marriage where her husband has become unbelievably distant and bitter, however she still yammers excitedly on about nail polish, meerkats, religion and shopping malls. However, just because Ashley does her best to only see the good in people and situations, it does not mean she is a stupid woman. She is a peacemaker, trying to keep those around her happy and together. She is still astute enough to tell her husband, “God loves you just the way you are. But he loves you too much to let you stay that way.”

Interestingly enough, though he quietly just putters around the house and often hides in his basement workshop, George’s father Eugene is the one character who seems to understand all of the others around him and respect them despite their idiosyncrasies. He may not talk much, but when he does it is surprisingly insightful. It is a powerfully quiet performance by veteran actor Scott Wilson, who is a long, long way from his early performances as murder suspects in a couple of classic 1967 dramas, In Cold Blood and In the Heat of the Night.

Junebug understands and has empathy for all of these people, even Johnny. In one scene he is alone watching television when he happens upon a documentary on the meerkat, which he knows is Ashley’s favorite animal. He starts looking desperately for a videotape so he can record it for her, and you suddenly realize that despite his bitterness there is still the soul of a man who loves her there. A man who would desperately love to give his wife a tape about her beloved meerkats. When he can’t find a tape and get it for her, he is bereft.

On the other hand, the supposed sophisticate often comes out looking silly in this milieu. Madeleine’s rigid pursuit of the artist seems both misguided, slightly condescending and a little hypocritical. Wark is loud, bigoted, borderline insane, and his paintings are rather rudimental, garishly violent and sophomorically sexual. Madeleine is somewhat offended by some of the things the man says (like his explanation that all the slaves in his paintings have white faces because he’s never really seen a black man — though that was not the term Wark uses), and yet she is not above using them to her advantage (she casually rats out her chief competition for the artist as a Jew when Wark turns out to be an anti-Semite as well).

It is only when the couple leaves to go home that they can all finally feel comfortable again. George may be from North Carolina, but he is not a man there, he is a boy. When he tells Madeleine that’s he’s damn glad to get out of there as they follow the highway North, it is not a judgment of the family he left behind. It is a judgment of himself. (8/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: October 14, 2005.

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