Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 23 July 2007
Source Eureka! DVD
When Junebug arrived relatively unheralded in 2005, it was almost lost amid a slew of vaguely similar small-scale American dramas, among them Me And You And Everyone We Know, Thumbsucker and The Squid And The Whale. With its childlike poster art recalling Wes Anderson, a score by Yo La Tengo and a cameo from Will Oldham, Junebug seemed to be ticking many of the same hip counter-cultural boxes: one could be forgiven for expecting yet another faintly patronising comedy of awkwardness, crammed with visual tics and surrealist touches, high on art and irony but low on believability or genuine emotion.
A surprise, then, that Junebug not only managed to break that mould, but ignore it completely. Pitched somewhere between later Jim Jarmusch and a Reese Witherspoon comedy, Junebug is the sort of film the great American independent directors used to do better than anyone—a classic, character based comic drama, perceptive, bittersweet and rooted in humanity, a tradition going back through Sayles, Altman and early Scorsese to Cassavetes and even Preston Sturges.
The plot is agreeably simple. Expat art dealer Madeleine takes time out from courting an eccentric outsider artist (with strong shades of Henry Darger) to visit her new husband’s North Carolina family. Her worldly, intellectual demeanour conflicts with the solidly down to Earth working class family, with mixed results: mother Peg takes an immediate dislike to her, son Johnny tries to feel her up, while his innocent and heavily pregnant wife Ashley takes Madeleine as her new role model and best friend.
Perhaps deservedly, Junebug is likely to be remembered for Amy Adams’ Oscar nominated performance as Ashley (a Supporting Actress nomination despite Adams’ name being first on the credits). Effortlessly dominating every scene in which she appears, Adams plays Ashley as a wide eyed holy innocent, marvelling at the glory of creation while still managing to bear the blows life has to offer. Her catalogue of facial expressions may seem exaggerated — the bit lip, the wrinkled nose, the startled eyes — but it all works within the context of the character, and the wider story. Ashley needs to be larger than life in order to compensate for the pent up, buttoned down nature of the other characters, but it does give Adams a golden opportunity to act them all off the screen.
Embeth Davidtz is suitably chilly as Madeleine, who means well but acts selfishly one too many times. It’s a thankless role, particularly when faced with Adams’ tornado—all she can do is hold her chin up and soldier on. Her strongest scenes come when dealing with men—with the irascible artist Wark, with her struggling husband George, and most effective of all with Ben McKenzie’s frustrated, insular Johnny. Their key scene together, in which Madeleine attempts to help Johnny to understand and appreciate the subtleties of Huckleberry Finn, is wonderfully constructed, their increasingly fraught emotional sparring contrasted with the sight of Ashley miserably attempting to relieve her sexual frustrations in the room above, a high school photo of Johnny clutched in her hand.
Ben McKenzie’s performance seems, at first, a world away from his turn in ‘The O.C.’, but in fact the two roles are quite closely linked—a frustrated working class boy struggling with his own sense of inadequacy. Johnny is perhaps the most conflicted character in the script, his motivations never clear, his actions unjustified and his allegiances always shifting. But McKenzie manages to make the character believable, giving us glimpses into Johnny’s taciturn dissatisfaction without ever going overboard into melodrama.
For a first time director, Phil Morrison does an outstanding job. There’s a real sense of care being taken, with performances and locations, music and visuals: the whole film feels like a labour of love, a creative ambition long intended and finally realised. The photography is precise and beautiful, capturing faces and objects alike in gentle, uncritical tones. A series of silent montages provide respite from the emotional fireworks onscreen, much the same technique PT Anderson used in Punch Drunk Love, with its washes of psychedelic colour. Here we are shown first a series of still photographs — of rooms inside the house, and empty streets outside — then a slow montage of tracking shots, moving surreptitiously through the town, or out into the woods surrounding it, providing not only a moment of peace but also a real sense of place within this unfamiliar semi-suburban landscape.
Junebug doesn’t have a lot to say. There’s no great statement being made here—as the deleted scenes attest, even the script’s vague attempts at critiquing the art world were left largely on the cutting room floor. There are moments towards the end of the film where one might perhaps crave a little more certainty, a little more definition in the filmmakers intentions; it all starts to feel a little formless. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they never provide easy answers — these characters conflicts are far from resolved at the film’s conclusion — but this practice does tend to leave the viewer feeling, at times, vaguely unsatisfied.
But such feelings are fleeting, and the overall impression is of a simple, heartfelt story confidently told, and a clutch of well constructed characters sympathetically played, if sometimes overshadowed by the film’s one masterful central performance. Though only occasionally outstanding, Junebug is consistently enjoyable and genuinely perceptive, and deserves to be remembered long after many of its more fashionable contemporaries have faded.