Junebug

Junebug

****1/2

Reviewed by: The Exile

Over the opening credits of Junebug, the first feature from director Phil Morrison, we see the whirlwind courtship of Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) and George (Alessandro Nivola), who meet in the Chicago art gallery which Madeleine owns. The gallery specializes in outsider art and the soundtrack is filled with the primitive shouts of so-called "hollerin' men," practitioners of a skill many believe to be the earliest form of human communication. These days, however, the men are oddities for art gallery patrons to marvel at, while the pragmatic roots of their yelling are long forgotten.

But history is everything in Junebug, as is communication (or the lack of it). Six months into their marriage, George and Madeleine are still at the stage where sex is a tool for settling disputes and a substitute for asking difficult questions. Knowing little of each other, they head for North Carolina where Madeleine has an appointment with a local artist named David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor). The couple will also visit George's parents, whose relationship with their son is strained - why, we don't know. But from the moment they arrive at George's childhood home, history closes in and the South itself materialises as the film's most compelling character.

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Is Junebug a comedy, a tragedy, a romance? The answer is all of these and none - at least, not in the way modern audiences expect. There is certainly comedy in the way Ashley (Sundance award winner Amy Adams), George's young, pregnant sister-in-law, idolises the sophisticated Madeleine and follows her around in talkative wonderment. And there is tragedy in the distance between Ashley and her furious, withdrawn husband, Johnny (The O.C's Benjamin McKenzie), whose resentment of George is as deep and unaddressed as his terror of fatherhood. As for romance, Junebug delivers one of the most resonant and lovely romantic moments I have seen in a modern film. At a church hall dinner, George's family and friends persuade him to sing a hymn and, as he reluctantly does so, Madeleine, unaware of his connection to singing, or religion, looks at her husband as though seeing him for the first time.

Vague to the point of withholding, Junebug dispenses with the signals moviegoers have come to expect from their entertainments, the clues that tell us what to feel and whom to root for. Constantly shifting focus and tone, the film appears to have no centre because everything is central. And though George's parents (wonderfully played by Celia Weston and Scott Wilson) distrust Madeleine's cultured urbanity and Johnny tragically misunderstands her casually affectionate ways, Junebug isn't about culture clash. It's about the acceptance love demands, and without which it cannot exist.

Morrison grew up in the South and understands its rhythms and the imprint of history. He may deny us emotional clues but what he gives us is beauty, in crisply framed, smoky vistas and spaces that look lived in. Like British director Terence Davies (The Long Day Closes), he creates hauntingly evocative, empty spaces that bleed history. The ghosts of the past haunt this film, most prominently in Wark's graphic paintings.

"I always had trouble drawing nigger faces," he tells Madeleine, explaining why all the people in his Civil War tableaux are white. Junebug may be too dramatically dispersed for some audiences, but its director draws faces with no trouble at all.

Reviewed on: 17 Mar 2006
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Love and understanding are tested in a Southern comedy-romance-tragedy.
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Director: Phil Morrison

Writer: Angus MacLachlan

Starring: Amy Adams, Embeth Davidtz, Ben McKenzie, Alessandro Nivola, Celia Weston, Scott Wilson, Frank Hoyt Taylor

Year: 2004

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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