Mixing Business with Family

Visiting her husband’s clan awakens one woman to American family values that alienate

There’s one great scene in “Junebug,” a moment worthy of John Ford. At a North Carolina church dinner, the pastor persuades George (Alessandro Nivola), who lives in Chicago with his wife Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), to sing a hymn. At first, George sings alone, but two other men join in. Their passion is contagious. The whole room watches, fascinated. The lines of community are being drawn. Despite the pastor’s best intentions, they exclude Madeleine, who watches this surprise demonstration of faith, talent and allegiance with a detached, anthropological gaze.

The ties between the families one is born into and those one creates are being stretched and tested. Madeleine’s husband has suddenly become mysterious to her. And it’s all played out as a matter of glances and music. If the rest of “Junebug” could match this scene’s power, it would be a masterpiece.

Madeleine runs a Chicago art gallery specializing in “outsider” art. Trying to convince North Carolina painter David Wark (Frank Hoyt Painter) to let her represent his work, she decides to visit her husband’s nearby hometown. Madeleine and George’s stay with his family is tense. The bubbly Ashley (Amy Adams), who’s pregnant, welcomes Madeleine, but George’s brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), mother Peg (Celia Watson) and father Eugene (Scott Wilson) are a lot more reticent. George and Madeleine grow separate, as she begins spending more time with Ashley. Her attempts to help Johnny, a GED student, write a paper on “Huckleberry Finn” backfires.

For Morrison, being Southern implies isolation from the mainstream media. As in David Gordon Green’s films, pop culture is nowhere to be seen in “Junebug.” The TV only plays nature documentaries. It obviously takes place in the present—its characters’ self-consciousness about smoking is particularly au courant, but with very few changes, it could have been set 20 or 30 years ago.

Whose perspective does “Junebug” speak from? At first, the answer seems to be Madeleine’s, although it includes scenes she couldn’t have witnessed, like a brief segment at Johnny’s workplace. The film walks a fine line between sympathizing with her and critiquing her attitudes. The family’s behavior toward her is off-putting. Even Ashley seems to be trying too hard to be friendly.

However, Madeleine’s interest in Wark represents the worst aspects of outsiders’ fascination with the South. He combines a distance from media hegemony—to put it mildly—with less appealing traits like casual racism and anti-Semitism. His imagination remains uncolonized, which appeals to Madeleine. Unfortunately, so do the hints that he’s mentally challenged and his unconsciousness about bizarre sexual imagery. One of his paintings shows men being shot by Robert E. Lee’s enormous penis. Placed into the art world, his work would become “white trash” minstrelsy.

“Junebug” speaks indirectly about subjects with wide implications. Most of its characters are white Americans, although Madeleine is British, yet their anger at being seen as primitive, exotic outsiders rings far beyond North Carolina. Many gay and lesbian New Yorkers who fled repressive small towns and organized religion will be able to identify with Madeleine’s alienation as George sings.

Although written and directed by men, “Junebug” presents a cast of female characters far more vivid than their male counterparts. If Madeleine is quiet and aloof, Ashley makes up the difference—and then some. At first, she seems obnoxious. She forces friendship on Madeleine, can’t leave her alone for 30 seconds and expects her to instantly detail her life story.

However, her affability is genuine, even if it doesn’t always look that way. It’s a defense mechanism against her growing differences with Johnny, who’s constantly angry. Having married as teenagers, the happiest years of their lives passed in high school.

Morrison’s direction is matter-of-fact but assured. However, “Junebug” shines brightest as an actor’s showcase, especially for Adams. In its final reel, it goes even further in this direction, turning into a series of two-handed conversations. These scenes try a bit too hard to flesh out the characters’ personalities, especially George’s. He and his laconic father both seem like ciphers for most of the film, although Eugene, who carves woodwork, seems more accepting of Madeleine than Peg.

There’s something contrived about the way a pivotal plot point brings the family’s breaking points into the light of day, but it never lets the audience forget that their differences are real, not something that can be easily smoothed. In his own way, George has become as much of an outsider in North Carolina as Madeleine. As a slow, somber procession of quiet desperation, it has real staying power.

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