Near the end of Junebug, audience surrogate Madeleine sits with Eugene, her father-in-law, and talks quietly and cautiously. She has only just met her husband’s (Alessandro Nivola) family, based in North Carolina, knowing very little about them and about him. Speaking about her mother-in-law, Peg, she muses, “She’s a very strong personality.” Eugene responds with words that inform the entire picture we have just seen: “That’s just her way. She hides herself. She’s not like that inside…like most.”
If you don’t let his profound and simple statement slip by you, then congratulations, you have successfully grasped the key to Junebug, a quiet, lean drama whose central family, the Johnstens, prove Eugene to be entirely correct (and much wiser than he lets on) throughout the film. We see the Johnsten clan through Madeleine’s eyes; she and her husband of sixth months, George, fly to North Carolina to meet her new in-laws. But the reason for the trip is two-fold, and in fact getting together with the Johnstens is secondary; Madeleine, an art dealer specializing in “outsider art”, wants to acquire the talents of a self-taught folk artist who paints allegorical Civil War pictures. By chance, he lives nearby George’s parents. The complete efficiency of a trip to their area is obvious; husband and wife leave Chicago and we await the inevitable culture shock.
Strangely, it never comes, at least not the way we expect it to. George’s family is comprised of the reticent Eugene, the father; the domineering and strong matriarch Peg, who Madeleine unfortunately refers to her as “Pat” too many times before being corrected; Johnny, withdrawn and angry; and Ashley, Johnny’s wife. We learn that they married before either of them finished high school. Gloriously pregnant Ashley is almost the polar opposite of Eugene; where he is silent to a fault, she’s a chatterbox, loquacious and naive and endlessly sweet. We expect Madeleine’s arrival to shake up the Johnstens’ world, but for anyone expecting a hilarious clash between the cultured, Northern sophisticate and the Southern people of the earth, look elsewhere. Director Phil Morrison delivers a batch of characters who feel incredibly genuine even in spite of the masks that they wear when he could have relied on any number of tropes to sculpt each of them; the Johnstens, for example, could have either been drawn with a flourish of quirks and eccentricities so common in today’s family dramedies, or fashioned from the same clay as the cast of Hee-Haw. Instead, he provides a family that’s undeniably born from a Southern mold, and he does so without singling them out or pointlessly mocking them. The Johnstens are not laughably backwards hillbillies design to serve as the butt of jokes we’ve been told a hundred times before.
Meanwhile, Madeleine could be overly concerned with messing up her hair or dirtying her designer outfits; she could be blissfully unaware of the stark differences between living in the country and living in the city. None of these things is true, and when Madeleine does make a choice one might expect from a goal-oriented and ambitious urbanite, her decision makes sense on a realistic level and on a dramatic level. Junebug wants us to recognize the innate differences between the two cultures, but it doesn’t try to hold them over our heads. Rather, the film serves as a window through which we observe very diverging ways of life.
Primarily, Junebug portrays a family unwilling or unable to show who they really are. It’s about the truth of people. The first impressions we have of the Johnstens slowly melt away over the course of the picture; Morrison wants us to see a full 360 degree view of the reality of, say, Peg and Johnny. Johnny seethes with contempt seemingly for everyone around him– most of all his older brother– and keeps himself alienated from his immediate family, and even his own wife. He only seems to come alive at his dead-end job at Replacements, Ltd., and even then he’s still restrained. But when a television program about meerkats, Ashley’s favorite animal, comes on, he desperately scrambles to record it for her. He fails, and lashes out. Peg, on the other hand, is impenetrable, an emotional dragoon; she’s practically impossible to read or even provoke a response from. (Other than a tired expression and a declaration of your wrongness.) Not long after Eugene’s conversation with Madeleine, Ashley goes into labor. Almost as soon as it begins, it’s over, and we learn the baby is stillborn. Each family member is devastated, but Peg, behind closed doors, appears to take it harder than anyone else. Junebug introduces these characters and then intends to peel away their armor and their false personae, if only a minute enough amount that we get a glimpse of the person underneath.
This is even (or especially) true for Madeleine. The trip to North Carolina is like a journey of discovery for her; she learns all about George, a man she married one week after meeting. Their visit provides her with the veracity of his being. Madeleine hears him sing (and beautifully) in church for what must be the first time. The experience transfixes her. Who is this man? Who did she marry? Much of their relationship is steeped in the sexual; they have sex in the art gallery in the opening, and fool around in the car both while driving to the Johnstens’, and when they get there. Seeing George in his element shifts her perspective of him. In her climactic decision, Madeleine chooses to court the aforementioned painter one last time to prevent losing him to a New York gallery instead of going to the hospital with George. George believes family takes precedent (though given the nature of their visit, his dedication to the concept of “family” is up for debate). She learns what is (again, arguably) important to George. What’s wonderful about this moment, and others in the film like it, is that there isn’t any outside judgment; Morrison isn’t trying to tell us that one or the other is right.
(Fun fact: This theme of character exploration extends in a very meta fashion to the ways in which Madeleine, the character, reflects Embeth Davidtz, the actress; we learn, early on, that Madeleine’s childhood saw her bouncing from home to home across the world with her parents. In reality, Davidtz, a South African actress born in Indiana, also grew up in numerous countries and cities before the Davidtz clan relocated to South Africa when she was 9 years old.)
If there’s one reason to see Junebug (and there are many), it’s for the performances, which are uniformly strong; Scott Wilson is perhaps the only man who could convey the meaning of Eugene Johnsten without being too on-the-nose. It’s a quiet role, and Wilson makes the absolute most of it. His few words speak volumes. Davidtz is equally admirable as the outsider of the film, the interloper trying her best to fit in and make sense of the foreign world she’s been drawn into. The actress walks through the film eyes wide, wearing a smile; if she harbors any ill feelings towards her new family, or her husband, she does an amazing job of repressing them. Junebug‘s true treasure lies in Amy Adams’ pregnant frame; her work as Ashley, relentlessly and unapologetically optimistic, is sterling. Ashley is the most genuine and honest person amidst a group of people who go to lengths to cloak themselves. Combined with her unrivaled pluckiness, she becomes the most relatable and likable character in the cast. Among other awards, Adams won the Special Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival; years later her work still holds up and proves how worthy of those accolades she was, and still is.
If Junebug stumbles in any way, it’s when Morrison and cinematographer Peter Donahue meander just a little too much in capturing the North Carolina landscape or framing the film’s architecture. The camera grows listless, the film’s focus slips, and we begin to wonder why it’s important for us to see an extended shot of a random neighbor walking around in their yard. These criticisms are minor, though; Junebug is a remarkably efficient and trim film, one that has a lot of love for small towns like the one depicted here, as well as the people who inhabit them. Magnificently acted, it is almost certainly one of the yard sticks by which modern family dramas should be measured. No oddities and quirks need be invented for the Johnstens– Morrison thoroughly understands that the vagaries of families are more than enough.