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Junebug: Culture Collision

Photo by: Robert Kirk courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Junebug begins when a Chicago art dealer travels to a small town in North Carolina to sign up David Wark, an eccentric artist whose oeuvre is driven by a phallo-maniacal obsession with the Civil War. The push and pull between outsider artist and savvy gallerist is a lovely metaphor for the broader issues of country versus city, North versus South, secularism versus religion, red state versus blue that Junebug probes so deftly. The dealer, Madeleine (played by Embeth Davidtz), is urbanity personified. Thin as a rail, dressed all in black, she’s the daughter of a British diplomat and owns a gallery devoted to outsider art, a genre whose fascination with the weird, incompetent and pathological can seem like a calculated affront to Middle American notions of culture. Meanwhile Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), with his sing-song drawl, childlike egotism, and violent paintings of bullet-ejaculating soldiers and castrated slaves, embodies the Gothic-romantic vision of the American South as a place at once naïvely wise and corrupt.

Hollywood conventions would dictate that the conjunction of these two stereotypes must play itself out in one of two ways: by the end of the film, either Madeleine’s brittle smarts will bow to Wark’s heartfelt folk wisdom, or he’ll be revealed as a serial killer intent on making her squeal like a pig.

Eschewing all such clichés, Junebug reaches beyond the obvious to tell a story of culture collision with delicacy and intelligence. In their first feature, director Phil Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan have pulled off a coup, combining the immediacy and visual richness of film with the texture and depth of a good novel.

Madeleine has come to North Carolina with George (Alessandro Nivola), her husband of just a few months. We see her first sight of him, a GQ god in an expensive suit, at a crowded auction held in her Chicago gallery. Instantly attracted to each other (they are, after all, the two best-looking people in the room), they make love once the gallery empties. “Where did you come from?” she asks breathlessly. He answers, “Pfafftown, North Carolina.”

So when Madeleine decides to drive south to snag Wark for her gallery, she persuades George to come along and introduce her to his family, who live just half an hour away. And here is where the real clash of civilizations occurs. George’s glossiness, it turns out, isn’t something he learned at home. The Johnstens aren’t weirdos like David Wark, just middle-class, churchgoing Southern folks. But the new in-laws face each other across an abyss of personal misunderstanding and cultural incomprehension.

As they wait for George and Madeleine to arrive, George’s taciturn father, Eugene (Scott Wilson), is braced for trouble and his mother, Peg (Celia Weston), is brimming with jealous resentment. The younger brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie), a high-school dropout living at home and as hapless as George is successful, bears the brunt of his mother’s anger. He sulkily awaits whatever new proof of his distant-second status the prodigal’s return will bring. Only Johnny’s very pregnant and very neglected wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), is excited to meet her new relative, whose big-city glamour makes her as awe-inspiring as a Hollywood celebrity.

George hasn’t been back home in more than three years, and as soon as he and his somewhat older bride arrive he disappears, leaving her to make nice with the family as best she can. But Madeleine’s efforts to woo the Johnstens keep misfiring. She greets them with hugs and Euro-style two-cheek kisses, which the Johnstens—who never touch each other—clearly regard as a breach of propriety. Madeleine’s interest in outsider art is read as condescension (can’t she find better artists in Chicago? Peg wonders), and it doesn’t help that she keeps addressing her new mother-in-law as “Pat.” Her looks and creamy charm quickly win over Wark, the outsider artist, but in the Johnsten household these are just reasons to distrust her. “She’s older, she’s too pretty and she’s too smart,” Peg tells her husband. “That’s a dangerous combination.”

Ashley, however, is thrilled to find herself sitting across the kitchen table from such a paragon of chic. “Were you born in Chicago?” she prattles. “I was born right here, lived here my whole life. My favorite animal is the meerkat. Did you ever try out for cheerleading or anything? I tried out but I didn’t make it.” When Madeleine answers, “I was born in Japan,” Ashley is so lost in admiration she can hardly speak. “You were not,” she gasps.

The action pauses now and then and the screen fills with pictures of the local landscape—clover swarming with bees, thick stands of birches, lush green lawns and deep orange dirt—and of interiors from the Johnstens’ earnestly respectable house. They’re reminiscent of the work of William Eggleston, and even though they fall far short of the master (Eggleston is a hard act to follow) they give the film a dreamy rhythm drenched with the mixed feelings evoked by a trip home. (Morrison was born in North Carolina and MacLachlan attended school there.)

If the other Johnstens are suspicious of Madeleine, she’s just as puzzled by them. What works for her in Chicago blows up in her face in Pfafftown. When she tells her brother-in-law that he is “just as handsome” as his brother, he replies, “Is he still an asshole?” She compliments Peg’s sewing and humbly confesses that she herself can’t do anything with her hands. “George knew that when he married you?” Peg asks. She can’t imagine why her adored son has chosen someone who is a rejection of everything Peg values about herself. When Madeleine, at Ashley’s urging, tries to help Johnny with his homework for a high-school equivalency course, he mistakes her chumminess for a threatening and insulting come-on.

At a supper in the church basement, the pastor welcomes the newlyweds and, after introducing his new baby (who takes one look at Madeleine and bursts into anxious tears), insists on blessing the couple at length. The look on Madeleine’s face reveals that she is as discomferted by the Johnstens’ faith as they are by her baffling elegance—and that this is a facet of her husband she is discovering for the first time. Then George stands up and sings a hymn, so beautifully that it’s impossible to think he doesn’t believe what he’s singing. “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,” George croons, and his mother mouths the words of the refrain along with him: “Come home, come home.”

All these tensions reach the breaking point when Ashley goes into labor just as Madeleine learns that Wark—who turns out to be not so naïve after all—has decided to abandon her in favor of a gallery in Manhattan. (He wants a show in New York, he explains, adding, “They say you was small potatoes.”) So while the Johnstens all head to the hospital, Madeleine rushes off to recapture her outsider, ignoring her husband’s pleas that she put support for the family ahead of her own agenda. What happens next confronts every one of them with the tragedy of their own limitations, notwithstanding either their faith or their sophistication. But it also spurs them to reconnect as best they can.

Junebug tells us volumes about all these people in just 107 minutes, and it gets so much right. We see that Johnny, whom Peg can’t stop criticizing, has married a girl wholooks a lot like his mother, and now that Ashley is herself becoming a mother he’s repulsed by her. We see that the Johnsten men rarely speak (the three male leads’ performances are almost mime) and that they are always hiding—Eugene in his basement workshop, Johnny under the beater of a car he can’t get to run, George in sleep or a depressed trance—leaving their women to deal with life. We see that these are people who have few ways to reach out, even when they desperately need each other, and that the physical passion connecting George to Madeleine, dramatized in some very hot sex scenes, is the way he’s found to rescue himself from his hands-off upbringing. The music, with an original score by Yo La Tengo, is unexpected (no pickin’, no fiddlin’) but exactly on target. (Why isn’t there a soundtrack album?) Even the outsider art is surprisingly plausible.

Amy Adams has been singled out for awards and critical raves, and deservedly so. Her subtlety and transparency make what could easily have come across as a caricature into the vibrant heart of the movie. But every other actor in Junebug is outstanding, too, matching the excellence of the writing with performances that hit the mark perfectly. Celia Weston exposes the heartbreak that underlies Peg’s lumpy bitterness, and Embeth Davidtz suggests the vulnerability that fuels Madeleine’s ambition. Scott Wilson makes inflating an air mattress into a revelation of character and Alessandro Nivola uses his dimpled, ingratiating grin to show how trapped George feels by his birth family’s love and pain. Particularly noteworthy is O.C. star Ben McKenzie’s furious Johnny, whose every glance and gesture reveals a bottomless lake of hurt.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2005

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