2005Director: Phil Morrison
Cast: Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola
ood-willed yet painful, Phil Morrison’s Junebug is an excellent portrait of a southern family, deftly and subtly exploring the texture and personality of all its characters. But like a portrait, the characters of the film are static—while we get the texture of the characters, there is little character growth made over the film, and even fewer surprises. The characters don’t defy any expectations—the viewer’s first impression of each person generally carries them through to the end—but while this may mean a paucity of dramatic tension for the film, this does not sully the tragicomic and beautifully executed portrait that is painted.
This family portrait is made through contrast with an outsider. Madeline (Embeth Davidtz) is a posh British art dealer in Chicago who deals in Art Brut, or “visionary art” as the film calls it—art created by permanent outsiders, people who live in their own strange worlds, such as prisoners, the insane, or the mentally handicapped, whose art reflects a uniqueness and lack of influence from the art world. At one such gallery, she meets the younger George (Alessandro Nivola), a southern gentleman whose directness and simplicity attracts her (he buys art because “It makes me happy”), and they are more or less instantaneously together, making out against the wall of an empty gallery. They are married within a week.
Six months later, the pair makes the trip down the George’s home state of North Carolina, on an expedition to court the work of David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor). Wark is a moderately-crazed old man who paints pictures of civil war battlefields with floating dog heads, computers on the battlefield, and naked men impaling each other on their massive genitals. Strange as these images might sound, through them Madeline finds a sort of strange authenticity, which comes at least in part from his eccentric and inescapable Southernness. The romanticized idea of the South reminds her of her childhood, as disturbing as this may sound given the content of his pictures. Her interaction with this artist and the strange, essentialized and ambivalent relation to this Southernnness acts as a backdrop for the introduction of George’s North Carolina family. (And it is important to note that they visit the family because they are down to see the artist, not the other way around—it has been six months since they were married, and this is the first time she is meeting them.)
The face of troubled youth, or something.
It is in the exploration of this family, and their bizarrely-foreign-yet-eerily-similar contrasting relation to Madeline, that makes up the meat of the film; through Madeline, the film delves into the cultural and social divide between the north and south, the metropolis vs. the country—though avoiding the direct blue-state/red-state confrontation by conspicuously shying away from the topics of politics and economics, skirting around the issue with merely the cultural politics of art, education and religion.
Because the family is so central, an aside must be made before attempting to breach their surface: a lot of effort is put by the filmmakers into creating a neo-southern, lives-of-quiet (or not-so-quiet) desperation atmosphere. This mood is created by long, silent, atmospheric shots: of the father filling up an air mattress, or of empty rooms, or of a forest scene. While these scenes obviously are meant to contrast with the fervent talking and chattering elsewhere, in execution they end up falling flat. While it works sometimes, and clearly has the potential for a bold statement, the effect overall ends up being less profound and more awkward; this is due to the seemingly random placement of the scenes, which fail to actually artfully break up the pace of the movie, and seem to function merely as bumpers between scenes with dialogue, rather than any effective commentary on the rest of the film.
In terms of character, George’s family consists of an amalgam of well-realized (if predictable) southern archetypes: The taciturn, secretly wise father; the underappreciated, overbearing mother; the angsty, left-behind younger brother; and the chatty, starved for attention young bride; all introduced by the Son Who Left and Found Success. All of the family members are, in their own way, unable to effectively communicate with each other, and despite the Southern familial ideal, are much more atomized than their Northern brethren. They talk past each other in an attempt to be recognized and appreciated, and you get the feeling that all they need is a little push, and they’d be happy together, but can’t get past the fact of their own neglect.
Benevolently oblivious, and overwhelmingly good-willed in the face of a pretty depressing living situation, the nuanced personal texture of the very pregnant Ashley (Amy Adams) is what makes the film funny and enjoyable. Ashley loves Meerkats, and has the charm bracelet to prove it—we learn later in a television clip that the reason people like Meerkats so much is that their eyes face forward and they appear to be looking right at you like a human, and this is ever-so-appropriate an icon for Ashley, who is starving for attention and to be regarded by others. Unable to tolerate silence of any kind, she fills up the silence of the house with a filterless stream of chatter.
Adams’ portrayal of Ashley is best and funniest when she tosses out seemingly contradictory or utterly oblivious lines, which end up being incredibly revealing. Her semi-obsession with image is revealed in first thoughts about the inbound Madeline, “I bet she’s prettier than I am. I’m going to hate her,” but are followed up by the unexpected and delightful, “I can’t wait!” Or her ambivalence toward her family peaking through when Madeline complements the dress that her mother-in-law made, lamenting, “I can’t do anything with my hands,” and Amy returns, in full view of Peg: “You don’t have to, you’re smart.”
"It's nice to see you again, but could you maybe not hit me with your ring this time?"
Leaving Ashley, the family devolves into a lightly comic, but more dreary clash of solipsisms. Least redeemable of the other family members is Ashley’s husband, angsty Johnny, played by Benjamin McKenzie (famous for his portrayal of angsty Ryan from The O.C.), whose first words to Madeline are, “You got any cigarettes?” His self-centeredness is apparently meant to be spiritually balanced by a few instances of goodwill towards his wife—attempting (unsuccessfully) to record a Meerkat documentary for her, or getting excited and yelling “I want to do something important!” when she goes into labor. However, all other times he shows an near-epic lack of care for her, grabbing shotgun on the way to the hospital while his bride sweats in the back seat, or lighting a cigarette in the delivery room and then storming off when he is rebuffed by doctors.
The mother and father seem to be remote opposites, which can explain the tension in the household. Eugene (Scott Wilson) is quiet, shy, and non-confrontational—traits that would otherwise be considered positive, but wholly inadequate to satisfy the emotional needs of Peg (Celia Weston). Rather than come to bed, he searches for a Phillip’s head screwdriver, often ending conversations mid-thought with the search for his erstwhile object of attention. As a result of this lack of attention, Peg is strong-willed, browbeating, and nagging, ordering everyone in her family around like they were children—telling Ashley it is “Way past her nap time,” or her husband to “Sit up straight.” The lack of priority that she receives makes her suspicious of any sort of threat to her non-existent dominance over the house, leading to her (again, predictable) antipathetic response to Madeline, who she sees as taking away the son she wishes never left.
In the end, the father’s wisdom sums up the family, if failing to save it. He, unlike anyone else, sees the reason why people act the way they do: he defends Madeline to her wife, assuring her that “She means well,” and defends his wife’s suspicions to Madeline, assuring her that, “That’s just her way. She hides herself. She's not like that inside. Like most.” To wit: people are people, and they’re complicated.
If this embodies the way people act—meaning well, but not always realizing this meaning in their behavior—then the father’s explanation of his son’s attraction to Madeline sums up the reason the characters in the film haven’t already killed each other: “he loves her.” This more or less sums up the profundity, irrationality, and simplicity that lies at core of these very complex relationships; and the film’s greatest success lies in not trying to glorify this love, or make it a redeeming force: no, the relationships between characters are messy, deeply fucked-up, and motivated more often than not by self-regarding motivations. Just because they at root love each other, doesn’t mean they treat each other ideally, or even well, or that they are themselves likeable characters. But if the characters are unlikable, their unlikeability is their humanity, in their resistance to simple solutions and their persistent ability to sustain contradictory drives and motivations; to condemn them would be to condemn that equally powerful and not entirely ignoble desire: to be loved. They all both care about others and only care about themselves; they are both self-centered and secretly capable of great love; they are at once very closed off and wide open: and so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes.
By: Jim Fingal
Published on: 2005-09-02