Junebug (2005)

Directed by Phil Morrison

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The walls are very thin in the North Carolina home where much of Junebug takes place.  It’s a quietly crowded place, welcoming home the prodigal son, George (Alessandro Nivola) and his new wife, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz).  George’s younger brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie) remains at home with his pregnant wife, the effervescent, tragic Ashley (Amy Adams).

They join parents Peg and Eugene (Celia Weston, Scott Wilson) for a de facto family reunion.  For Madeleine, lathered in culture and a charming accent, this will be the first time meeting her husband’s parents, and through the film it seems she learns a lot about her husband himself, understandably considering they’ve known each other all of six months.

There’s a loose plot that ties these detailed, observational vignettes together.  It concerns a local, unorthodox but inspired artist whom Madeleine hopes to show at her gallery in Chicago, but in terms of importance it is just the background to the family drama which takes center stage.

None of it is quite as tense or exciting as you think, but in a good way.  This is a melodrama to some degree, but the movie sets up possible conflicts that never escalate to the same degree we expect in a movie.  Instead they unfold as they do in real life.  Conflicts will be addressed, but they are never the embellished do or die moments that often happen in narrative storytelling.

As the outsider Madeleine could so easily find herself vilified by the locals.  Her arrival is clearly a threat to some, a shakeup of the status quo, but she is not there to be mocked or made hallow.  This isn’t some story where she rediscovers the virtuous life by abandoning her busy career-focused life in the big city.

Similarly this isn’t some story to poke fun at the locals.  They could so easily become caricatures of the south, but though Madeleine is made to observe certain unexpected qualities about George and his family, she is ultimately intrigued by them.  She isn’t exactly enamored to the degree that the movie would fetishize their eccentricities, but she acknowledges and appreciates them, then moves on.

The whole thing is incredibly touching because the movie seems to care deeply about its subjects.  They’re not always kind, but they are human and empathetic.  Even the most frustrating character, Johnny, is given his moment to shine, to some extent.  We mostly see him as a silent grump who can’t bother to give his wife the love and affection she gives to him, but there are unique moments in which he comes alive (at work, where one coworker calls their factory job the best he’s ever had) and when he shows a deep kindness to Ashley (like in the struggle to set up a VHS tape to record a show about meerkats for her).  His defining characteristic has to do with a deep dissatisfaction with where his life is at (not helped by the return of his more successful brother), but he has a kindness within him that the film reveals.

Ashley is the most magnetic character in the whole thing.  Much of her dialogue is immensely quotable, and she transcends the bubbly exterior to reveal her own vulnerabilities.  It’s not hard to see that facade as a defense of some kind, particularly as she struggles to reach her silent husband (one of the more unusually sad scenes has her quietly masturbate to a picture of him and her in high school), and eventually an unforeseen tragedy necessitates that she let that guard down.  Adams was nominated for an Academy Award for this performance.

From a filmmaking standpoint as well this movie is so damn well-crafted.  It’s the acting and writing but so too the quiet, not so flashy cinematography and static shots that linger as they do in a Yasujiro Ozu film (director Phil Morrison has cited Ozu as a point of reference).  This style of shooting, with scenes that fade in from static, empty frames or return to those empty frames, helps us feel the patience with which life in this part of the country would seem to unfold.

It’s a beautifully poetic form of storytelling, contemplative and, in a way, careful.  It’s a delicate framing that offers the characters more kindness than they surely think they deserve.

Up Next: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), Triple Frontier (2019), Black Mother (2018)

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