Monday, August 22, 2005

"Junebug": On the Outside, Looking In


directed by Phil Morrison
starring Embeth Davidtz, Amy Adams, Alessandro Nivola, Benjamin McKenzie

At first glance and on paper, “Junebug” looks like a retread of well-worn ground: A young man returns home to the small South Carolina town he left years ago, accompanied by a posh wife who tries in vain to connect with his family and other locals. There’s a lot of room here for caricature and cliché, whether of the comedic or dramatic variety, and in other hands the movie could have been unwatchable—or at least utterly unmemorable. Mercifully, director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan have crafted a modest, intelligent little film that lingers in the mind much longer than you might expect.

Even among the numerous indie and arthouse features that have cropped up in the past month, “Junebug,” more than most, is the complete antithesis of the usual summer popcorn programming. Nothing happens, at least not on the surface. And unlike most movies, which lurch almost desperately from one conversation (or explosion) to the next, “Junebug” isn’t the least bit afraid of silence. In fact, the film is essentially one long stretch of silence, punctuated by brief intervals of dialogue and action (and in one lovely, totally un-ironic instance, a full-length hymn), rather than the other way around. It abounds in shots of static domestic interiors and leafy green exteriors, and snatches of social interactions where the dialogue seems to constitute little more than background to the overall scene.

There's very little back story, and most of what we learn about the principal characters is only through inference and occasional, almost incidental, comments. The returning native, George (Alessandro Nivola), virtually disappears as soon as he arrives, leaving his wife, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), to break the ice with the in-laws as best she can. Though she has a good heart and tries gamely, her overtures run repeatedly into invisible yet seemingly insurmountable barriers of wordless hostility. That is, at least, when it comes to George’s mother (Celia Weston), Peg, who barely conceals her disapproval of Madeleine beneath a thin veil of frosty politeness, and George’s younger brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie), who still lives with his parents, works a dead-end job, and appears to exist in a constant state of sullen rage. George’s father, Eugene (Scott Wilson), seems more kindly disposed towards his new daughter-in-law, but spends most of his hours doing carpentry in the basement and says a total of about fifteen words to her—or for that matter to anyone—over the course of the movie.

The only person who meets the visitor more than halfway is Johnny’s pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), who’s awestruck by Madeleine before she even arrives, and immediately buries her in a bewildering flood of friendly scatter-chatter about everything from meerkats to the nearest mall. Madeleine reciprocates some of Ashley’s warmth, but doesn’t ever understand or appreciate her sister-in-law any more than her other in-laws do her. Given a crucial chance to cross that divide, late in the movie, she forgoes it, sealing her fate as a permanent outsider. (Yet there’s a fleeting and very touching moment near the end in which she does connect—however briefly—with the silent Eugene.)

Adams made a big impression at Sundance, and it’s easy to see why. Initially so chipper and chatty as to be unnerving (and not a little grating), Ashley’s unblinking Stepford-wife quality gradually reveals hidden depths. When her soul is finally bared, it feels at once absolutely genuine and almost painfully poignant. But all the actors turn in exceptionally nuanced performances. Davidtz (who played the romantic rival in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Mansfield Park,” and Ralph Fiennes’s abused Jewish servant girl in “Schindler’s List”) is perfectly cast as the fish out of water, exuding an effortless cosmopolitanism that’s as natural to her character as breathing, as well as a refined yet palpable sexuality that threatens Madeleine’s in-laws more than her British inflections do. Weston and Wilson, both convincingly taciturn, convey worlds of difference in the respective qualities of their silence, and even McKenzie smoulders effectively as the brother with anger management issues (admittedly, having had plenty of practice on “The O.C.”). George, the fulcrum of the story, is by far the most thinly sketched of the major characters—probably a deliberate choice by the filmmakers. But when he’s onscreen, Nivola (an underutilized actor, last put to good use in “Laurel Canyon”), imbues him with an attractive combination of warmth, tenderness, and fundamental elusiveness that helps explain why the women in the movie adore him and why his brother resents him. Only one character sees the “real” George, and it may not be whom you expect.

“Junebug” isn’t perfect, by a long shot. It takes a while to find the right tone—the first third is far weaker than the rest, and does suffer a bit from George’s pointed absence. There’s also a lame subplot involving Madeleine, an art dealer in Chicago, trying to hunt down and sign up a local folk artist who’s one half the reason she and George came round to visit in the first place. She sees the man as an untutored, unspoiled genius in the wilderness; in reality he’s a wily and bigoted crank with an eye for the main chance, whose canvases evoke a bizarre cross-pollination of Grandma Moses and Hieronymous Bosch. (Surveying his latest, Madeleine tells the artist, with perfect gravity, “I like all the dogs and computers, and the scrotums.”) Morrison and Maclachlan are admirably careful not to peddle any crude red state/blue state stereotypes or city-slicker scenarios: the community we see feels like a real place, not an outlandish backwater out of “O Brother Where Art Thou.” But this backwoods-artist subplot is as close as the film gets to parody, and unfortunately serves as the only clearly dramatic device in the film.

In the end, though, the film is less about urban vs. rural than it is about rootlessness vs. roots. Madeleine, we find out, is a diplomat’s daughter who grew up in Japan; she met and married a man who apparently uprooted himself to seek his fortune in the wide world. But the roots are still there, and it takes only one visit home to reveal their depths. It’s this little slice of observation—nonjudgmental, slightly detached, yet strangely compassionate—that makes “Junebug,” in its own quiet way, a standout.



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2:00 PM  

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