“Junebug” drops one more welcome piece into the puzzle of southern culture. There hardly exists a cross-cultural gulf as subtle or as deep as that between the Deep South and the Mid-Atlantic and New England states. I love movies that take on the differences that remain undiminished more than a hundred years after the Civil War in places where a northerner has trouble deciphering the words he is hearing and a southerner looks at us as if we’re aliens.
A movie comes along now and then – and this is a terrific one - that dares to jump right into the gulf with a combination of humor and pathos. “Crimes of the Heart” did it – “Why did you shoot your husband? Because I didn’t like his face.” And now here is “Junebug” inviting us to follow newlyweds George (Alessandro Nivola) and Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) from their urban Chicago life to George’s deep southern roots. Would the trip have happened if Madeleine, a Chicago art dealer, hadn’t wanted to track down a rural southerner producing outsider art that she knows will sell in the North? Probably not.
Madeleine is a tall, angular beauty with a radiant smile. Engulfed in sophisticated black and unfailing grace, she stands out in George’s family like a live movie or a painting on the wall. She and her urbanized husband are in the throes of the loving lust of young marriage, and as a side trip to her business, she is being taken home to meet his family. Madeleine’s sophistication, borne of being the child of a travelling diplomat, is utterly natural and she passes no judgment on her new family.
While George busies himself elsewhere in his old home, Madeleine gets to know them all. Pregnant Ashley (Amy Adams) adores her on sight because Madeleine carries the whole of the world in her head and attitude. Ashley and her lumpen husband Johnny (Ben McKenzie) have not finished high school, and the last thing Johnny wants is to be tied down by a child. Johnny resents anything that crosses his path – brother George and Madeleine for instance – and smiles only with his peers at the Replacement Center where he packages plates. Peg (Celia Weston) and Eugene (Scott Wilson) are the parents who keep heartbreak deeply buried.
Just know this: the movie flies by because the acting of a first rate cast absorbs us. Amy Adams’ Ashley has an unquenchable spirit, a southern kind of bravery – that screams out that happiness is possible even while the rest of her family is carping and complaining. Embeth Davidtz is a tower of sophistication and kindness, an unlikely and wonderful pair of qualities, and Celia Weston’s Peg, the impossible to please possessive mother, stuns the audience to silence with her performance. See this one for the beautiful acting alone, and then perhaps, to add one small new piece to your understanding of the south.
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