Junebug (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The first encounter with the family of a spouse (or would-be spouse) can be a daunting experience, especially when their world is not yours, and vice versa. For his feature debut, director Phil Morrison (from a script by Angus MacLachlan) takes us into a melodrama-free zone for this story. A keenly observed slice of life, Junebug captures the little comedies and tragedies of everyday living. There is sadness and humor here, but all understated. The film is mostly about the details of the characters' day-to-day personal dramas - why the VCR won't record, where the screwdriver is, etc. Junebug requires a certain amount of patience from its viewers. Those who provide that will be rewarded in the end.

It's amazing how one premise - taking a road-trip to meet the in-laws - can produce a movie as juvenile as Meet the Fockers and as insightful as Junebug. Newlyweds Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) and George (Alessandro Nivola), who live in Chicago, are headed to North Carolina. Their purpose for going is two-fold: Madeleine wants to sign up a promising painter for her art gallery and it's time for George's family to meet his wife. Reactions are mixed. George's mother, Peg (Celia Weston), and brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), are hostile. George's father, Eugene (Scott Wilson), is cautious but pleasant. And Johnny's pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), is enthusiastic. She is in awe of George's big-city wife, and shows it. For her part, Madeleine does her best to be approachable and affable, while George is conflicted about coming home again.

The film is a study of couples. Madeleine and George have the passion of the newly married and are still discovering things about one another. Peg and Eugene have been matched for so long that they take each other for granted. They show no overt affection for each other, yet their understanding runs deep. Finally, there's Johnny and Ashley, who couldn't be more mismatched. She's lively, vivacious, and full of sweetness. He's dour, self-absorbed, and incommunicative. Despite their differences, however, one senses that these two are not headed for a divorce. Others look at them and see not potential rifts, but "happiness" (or what passes for it in a community where marriage between high school sweethearts is common).

The film avoids the melodramatic pitfalls that would engulf a similar Hollywood production. There are no extramarital affairs. Madeleine does not break through Johnny's solitude by sleeping with him. Ashley does not seek solace in George's arms. No one contracts a terminal illness. No family secrets are unearthed. Junebug is content to show how these people interrelate during the course of the trip. If there's one thing that doesn't work, it's Madeleine's interaction with the artist, David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor). I bought every character in the movie except this one. Fortunately, he's only a secondary presence.

Amy Adams took home an acting award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival for her performance. It's eye-opening and heartwarming - the actress radiates such joy, even in the face of tragedy, that we find ourselves smiling when she's on screen. It would be easy to turn Ashley into a caricature, but Adams never comes close. Bejamin McKenzie keeps Johnny from becoming a villain. That's the difference between a three-dimensional performance and a two-dimensional one. Celia Weston and Scott Wilson give the impression of lived-in characters. And Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola offer understated portrayals of people out of their element and trying to fit in, if only for a while.

I wrote earlier that Junebug requires patience. Like most character-driven pieces, it is deliberately paced. Those who demand quick payoffs and snappy editing to keep things moving will be bored by this film. Morrison takes his time, allowing us to get to know the characters before he introduces a few narrative complications. In the end, we not only believe in the men and women populating the film, but feel along with them. By offering that experience, Junebug has done its job.

Junebug (United States, 2005)

Director: Phil Morrison
Cast: Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Benjamin McKenzie, Amy Adams, Celia Weston, Scott Wilson
Screenplay: Angus MacLachlan
Cinematography: Peter Donahue
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2005-08-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1