Local interest in Junebug is high, owing to its North Carolina setting and pedigree — and for the most part, that interest is justified. This modest little movie captures something of life in this state in ways that few previous films have.
There’s not a lot of plot. Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz, The Emperor’s Club), who represents a Chicago art gallery, has married North Carolina expatriate George (Alessandro Nivola, The Clearing). When her scouts turn up a promising “allegorical” artist about a half-hour away from George’s North Carolina home, the couple make a trip South — for her to meet the artist and his family.
Now, you might be expecting the typical culture clash to result from this, and while it does to some extent, it isn’t handled at all in a traditional manner. Better still, the North Carolinians are not viewed with derision — like bizarre creatures from outer space. Nor are they of the lower-depths persuasion. They’re neither upscale nor are they intellectual giants, but you know these people; you know their foibles and peculiarities. You probably grew up next to them.
The film also sidesteps the usual approach of having all Southerners be immediately skeptical of outsiders. Indeed, as Junebug opens, Madeleine’s very pregnant sister-in-law, Ashley (Amy Adams, The Wedding Date), is overjoyed at the prospect of meeting her new relative — generally talking so much that it seems incredible she will ever actually learn anything about Madeleine. George’s father, Eugene (Scott Wilson, Monster), is detached and distracted, but neither as unfriendly nor quite as out of it as he might seem.
Only George’s mother, Peg (Celia Weston, The Village), is especially skeptical of the outsider — and that mostly seems grounded in Madeleine’s being too pretty, too skinny and too smart. George’s brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie, TV’s The O.C.), is both unfriendly and, ultimately, too friendly, but he’s inarticulately angry with everyone — and obviously jealous of the smarter brother who managed to get out the small town and the dead-end job and everything that goes with it.
Really, the only thing close to a standard Southern caricature is the eccentric artist, David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor, Big Fish). And while this Cheerwine-loving, casually racist (yet not in a normal sense) man is decidedly odd, he’s observed with a large measure of bemused affection — and there’s a sense that Madeleine actually likes him and his art, not that she merely sees a personal coup in getting him for her gallery.
Junebug is a generally quiet film grounded in character studies, where things just happen as they naturally might — and where things aren’t tied up in neat little packages. Consider the scene where George is pressed into singing the hymn “Jesus Is Calling Me.” His being able to do so comes as a surprise to Madeleine. Obviously, they’ve never discussed religious beliefs or backgrounds, much less that he used to sing hymns. But the film just lets it happen, lets her register her surprise (only to herself) and then lets it go. Both Madeleine and the viewer have seen a side of George hitherto unknown, not even guessed at, but we’re all just left to wonder what it means about him.
It’s that kind of movie — and that’s why Junebug is worth your time, even while it has more than a couple flaws. Certain characters are left a little too vague. If the movie ever told me just what George does in Chicago — or even what he’s interested in — other than to be married to Madeleine, and thereby get her to North Carolina, I missed it. A little ambiguity is one thing, but too much of it can go too far; here, it does (as to a lesser degree with George’s dad, Eugene), damaging the film — though not fatally, by any means.
Rated R for sexual content and language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke