Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a sophisticated dealer in 'outsider art', meets and marries George (Alessandro Nivola) in the space of a week. Six months later they travel to North Carolina to sign a new artist and visit George's family. George's angry younger brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie) resents his success, while his mother Peg (Celia Weston) is suspicious of Madeleine. But Johnny's heavily pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), welcomes the couple with open arms and cannot wait to be friends with Madeleine. During their stay, tensions simmer as city girl Madeleine gracefully tries to be accepted into George's family.
Resentment, regret, jealousy, adoration... family politics has been covered pretty well in cinema, but Junebug offers a uniquely honest glimpse. There are no histrionics, no melodramatic confessions, no witty banter - just a snapshot of a working-class family going about their relatively uneventful lives.
And it really is a mere snapshot. We never really 'know' the characters. They are too guarded and tied up in their own personal issues for that. Interestingly, this strengthens Junebug's realism, because, as in life, we only see the surface of these people. The one exception is the angelic Ashley, a kind young girl completely devoid of guile or affectation.
She immediately, and genuinely, loves the sophisticated Madeleine, who represents everything she aspires to be - thin, clever and beautiful. The naïve Ashley is incapable of jealousy and always sees the best in people.
She may sound unrealistic, but this character is completely believable thanks to Amy Adams, who more than deserved her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
In fact all the actors are excellent, playing their roles with a naturalism that befits the script. The role of career woman Madeleine seems made for Embeth Davidtz, while Celia Watson projects a bitter gentleness as the mother who obviously loves her one son more than the other.
As Johnny, Ben McKenzie is uncomfortable to watch at times, his character so tightly wound and seething with anger and frustration at a life he didn't want. His self-hatred overwhelms everything good in his life, including his love for Ashley.
This disappointment is magnified by an intense jealousy of George (well acted by an unusually restrained Alessandro Nivola), who deals with his family by being as passive as possible, which only makes Johnny angrier.
George is the archetypal "golden boy", and in order to avoid conflict, he quietly detaches himself from the goings-on in his family, leaving wife Madeleine to bear the brunt of the tensions.
Despite the drama, there are many poignantly funny moments, most of them provided by an eager to please Ashley. The direction is also so intuitively superb, that it's surprising to learn this is Phil Morrison's debut.
Just as refreshing is the lack of stereotyping that could easily have crept into a movie set in small town North Carolina. There is a particularly touching scene at a church bazaar, which in most films would be turned into a clichéd criticism of "simple country folk".
Junebug's script, written by Morrison's friend Angus MacLachlan, avoids such conclusions. Ultimately, this style makes Junebug both pleasing and frustrating. There is very little resolution and almost nothing changes in these people's lives, but we are left with the hope that it just might.
Junebug is being released here long after the awards season has come and gone, which is a shame because it received a number of well deserved accolades. That said, it's not for everyone. If you feel like a quirky and honest look at a small town family that love each other, but are unable to express it, Junebug is an excellent and entertaining choice.
- Amanda Whitehouse
South African actress Embeth Davidtz plays a worldly art dealer who visits her new husband's hometown and gets a less than warm welcome from his family.
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