Junebug

Cast:
Alessandro Nivola as George
Embeth Davidtz as Madeleine
Amy Adams as Ashley
Benjamin McKenzie as Johnny
Annette Beatty as Dr. Beatty
Celia Weston as Peg
Scott Wilson as Eugene
Alicia Van Couvering as Bernadette
Frank Hoyt Taylor as David Wark
Jeffrey Dean Foster as Gallery Assistant
R. Keith Harris as Bud, Young Pastor
David Kuhn as Auctioneer
Laura Lashley as Gallery Assistant
Will Oldham as Bill Mooney, scout
Chuck Russell as Chuck at Replacements, Ltd.
Bobby Tisdale as Norman at Replacements, Ltd.
Tarra Jolly as Tarra at Replacements, Ltd
John A. Van Couvering as Meerkat Expert
Caitlin Van Hecke as Emily, Pastor’s wife
John McGee as Singer at Church
John Eddie McGee as Older Singer at Church
Gregory Wagner as Young Singer at Church

Summary:
Taking the clichĂ© “you can never go home again” to dramatic heights, Junebug comes across like Meet the Parents as written by Tennessee Williams.

Story:
After spending many years living in Chicago, George (Alessandro Nivola) has returns home to North Carolina, giving him a chance to ntroduce his British art dealer wife Madeleine (Embeth Davitz) to his family. Although they all seem nice at first, especially his enthusiastic and quite pregnant sister-in-law Ashley (Amy Adams), the family is suspicious of trusting an outsider with their secrets, which all start to come out the longer they stay there.

Analysis:
If you think your family has problems, then Junebug might help you appreciate them more, because you’re not likely to see a family quite as messed-up as the one depicted in Phil Morrison’s debut feature, which is based on a screenplay by Angus MacLachlan.

What makes Morrison’s film different from other dysfunctional family comedies is that its Southern setting allows for a rather unique perspective. At first, the film starts as a comedy with many funny situations coming out of what might be seen as typical Southern stereotypes. It doesn’t take long for Morrison’s agenda to come into play, as he spends the rest of the film trying to break down and dispel how Southerners are perceived by showing that there’s more depth and emotion behind his characters’ seemingly shallow exterior.

If you’re not from the South, you’re more likely to relate to Embeth Davitz’s Madeleine, whose background is so different from that of her younger husband George that it takes some time to get adjusted to his family’s odd behavior. However much she tries to fit in and help out wherever she can, she never really feels welcome there, mainly because George’s parents don’t trust her, feeling that she has kept their son from returning home. While some of the situations are typical of bringing your wife or fiancĂ© to meet your family for the first time, such as the decision whether to have sex in your parent’s house, Madeline’s presence starts to open up many old family wounds, such as the competition between George and his younger brother Johnny, played by an unrecognizable Ben McKenzie, star of the FOX show “The O.C.” Like many first-time fathers, Johnny is starting to find his wife Ashley less attractive as her body balloons, and things get worse when the sulking George spends more time alone, and both Johnny and his father start showing Madeleine some unwanted attention.

In a year that has yet to see many standout solo performances, Junebug follows the trend by being more about the sum of the parts with both comedic and dramatic high points being spread evenly among the ensemble cast. Alessandro Nivola follows his dramatic role in last year’s The Clearing with another low-key performance that doesn’t quite give an idea of what he’s capable. On the other hand, Celia Weston, a veteran character actress, does a spectacular job playing his domineering mother, as does Ben McKenzie whose “typical” angry Southern male breaks so far from his role on the show.

Still, the one performance that truly stands out is that of Amy Adams, a delightful breath of fresh air as the bubbly Ashley, who is quite adorable as she gabs cheerily and asks questions of Madeleine. As the story progresses, we start seeing the real Ashley bubbling below the surface, a woman who feels dumb and useless compared to their glamorous houseguest.

What makes Morrison and MacLachlan’s collaboration so brilliant is that there are so many layers to the story and the characters. Whether you watch it from George’s perspective as a man whose forced to revisit his roots after escaping them, or Madeleine’s viewpoint as an outsider or even Johnny’s, as a man threatened by the success of his older brother, it’s unlikely that you can fully appreciate the depth of their film in a single viewing. Surprisingly, it works just as well if you try to view one single aspect or take in the bigger picture.

Ultimately, things come to a head and the humor is switched off in favor of high drama as Ashley goes into labor, a moment that leads to some startling revelations and forces Madeleine to decide between her own career or standing by her husband’s family in their time of need. Sadly, this is also where the movie starts to lose its focus as Madeleine spends more time with a local art savant, who bares more than a passing resemblance to eccentric artist Henry Darger.

The Bottom Line:
Junebug is a simple but well conceived debut from Phil Morrison, which dives deep below the surface of Southern stereotypes to create the type of film that should and will be read differently by anyone who sees it, whether they’re from the South or not.

Junebug opens in New York and Los Angeles on August 3.

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