Movie Reviews
4:54 pm
Mon October 10, 2005

Junebug

It's as good an evocation of a region and the complicated lives within as you will see this year.

"The South is very beautiful but its beauty makes one sad because the lives that people live here, and have lived here, are so ugly." James Baldwin

The South has a particular hold on the idea of family: It is sacrosanct, the center of existence, and the breeder of sins, all in one. Tennessee Williams saw the ironies and exploited them in language and passions rich with vigor and meaning. Director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan in Junebug, however, use measured speech, devoid of metaphor and screaming, often filled with silence, to achieve the same insight into a world that is not quite understood even more than 100 years after reconstruction. It's as good an evocation of a region and the complicated lives within as you will see this year.

Junebug does not fulfill the requirements of a Flannery O'Connor tableau with grotesqueries so often a part of her short story richness. Rather it presents the South as Baldwin had not known: sincere, loving, slightly obtuse, but deeply committed to family at almost any cost. And, in accordance with O'Connor lore, the stranger will change everything. In the case of Junebug, Madeline (Ambeth Davidtz) comes to her husband's home in North Carolina ( Allesandro Nivola as George) to seal an art deal and visit his family. She is open, beautiful, accomplished, independent--all qualities to be suspected in a Yankee woman from Chicago. Her opposite is George's sister-in-law Ashley (Amy Adams, who won the Sundance acting prize for this turn): childlike, na?ve, and family dependent, especially on her morose husband, who is George's brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), and whose James Dean-like surliness is never explained.

No one here is totally understood, a common challenge of all dynamic families, but the film never exploits the caricature possibilities. The outsider does indeed change things, period. The subplot involves outsider Madeline securing the work of folk-artist David Wark, a North Carolina recluse whose painted allegories include canvases rife with the anarchy of emerging freedom, right down to slaves, computers, dog heads, and prominent scrotums. His paintings best express O'Connor's southern grotesque, a world of half forgotten horrors delivered in a dream state by a mystical artist.

"Mad as a Junebug" might be the reason for the title of this film; the richness of characters is the best reason to see it, bolstered by one of the most accomplished acting ensembles this year.