JUNEBUG (Phil Morrison, 2005)
A cosmopolitan art dealer meets her husband’s family for the first time in JUNEBUG. Embeth Davidtz plays Madeleine, a gallery owner specializing in outsider art. She and new husband George (Alessandro Nivola) travel from Chicago to North Carolina in hopes of securing a deal with an artist whose work incorporates Civil War imagery and phalluses. George hasn’t seen his family for three years, but since the artist lives nearby, he and Madeleine take a side trip to spend time with his folks. Although eager to ingratiate herself to her in-laws, Madeleine finds resistance from George’s resentful mother and hostile brother. On the other hand, George’s pregnant sister-in-law Ashley (Amy Adams) cottons to her immediately.
JUNEBUG does a wonderful job of capturing the regional flavor and finding humor in the people and place without holding the southern characters up for ridicule or scorn. Director Phil Morrison shows respect for simple, quiet lives of close-knit families and church carry-in dinners while also examining the wariness such insularity breeds toward outsiders.
JUNEBUG is seen through Madeleine’s eyes, a natural choice considering her unfamiliarity with this way of life despite her interest in the area’s folk art. Davidtz handles this tricky role quite well, making Madeleine neither the target of vilification nor the model of perfection.
There’s a niggling sense, though, that George should be JUNEBUG’S focus. At times he seems to be eminently comfortable in his old stomping grounds—he sings a hymn for the congregants at the church social, showing a part of himself that Madeleine has likely never witnessed—but he has not seen his family for a long time and spends much of the film avoiding them. It then comes as a big surprise when he takes his wife to task for not placing family above work when Ashley goes into labor at the same time Madeleine faces a crisis in finalizing a deal with the local artist. When they leave for Chicago, George expresses relief at getting away from his family. JUNEBUG would be a more successful film if George weren’t a cipher. As it stands, his contradictions contribute to the film’s mixed message.
What’s abundantly clear is that Adams steals the film as the irrepressible Ashley. She brings warmth and hilarity to a quirky character who never has less than everyone’s best interests at heart.
JUNEBUG has a good feel for its environment and gets many details right, but the major inconsistency (or glaring lack of understanding) regarding George throws the rest out of balance.