Friday, June 10, 2011

Junebug (dir. Phil Morrison, 2005)

As I do each year in mid-June, I’m looking forward to attending the annual Provincetown Film Festival next week. One of the early reviews that I posted on this blog last June was my critique of Loggerheads, which I saw at the festival back in 2005. That same year, I also saw the movie Junebug at the festival, and now that we’re back in the month of June again, my thoughts have been returning to that film a lot recently.

The word “original” gets tossed around often when discussing films or any art form, but I find that it rarely truly applies whenever it’s used. Phil Morrison’s Junebug is an original American film that deserves the description. It’s easy to forget the somewhat startling series of images that open the movie, since they don’t seem to connect immediately to the rest of its narrative. We first see some vintage footage of individual, middle-aged men singing, or doing something in between yelling and yodeling (the end-credits acknowledge a national “hollerin’” competition). It’s almost like the southern version of trumpeters who introduced the start of a stage-play in the Elizabethan era. Then the movie’s title is suddenly superimposed over a haunting shot of a thicket of trees at night, an image that will recur at a very strategic point much later in the film.

It's just as easy to forget how happy the earliest scenes of the story are, given the amount of tension and tragedy that follow in the course of the film. We meet George (Alessandro Nivola) as he falls believably in love-at-first-sight with Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz). He attends a benefit auction at the gallery in Chicago where she curates “outsider” art by self-taught painters. The close-up, blissful, headlong rush into their relationship — we’ll soon discover that they married each other only one week later — is necessary for the rest of the film to work. The couple heads south to George’s hometown in North Carolina for two reasons: so that George’s new wife can meet his family (and hopefully be embraced by them), and so that Madeleine can try to recruit the reclusive artist David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor) to the roster of painters whom she represents.

Once the film and its central characters arrive at George’s childhood home, we gradually realize that every member of the family wants something in particular. Madeleine wants to sign her painter before a New York art dealer signs him first. George, the silent, smiling golden boy, wants his family to get along comfortably, without disturbing the usual proceedings. His mother, Peg (Celia Weston), despite her occasionally up-front demeanor, wants her children to be happy, a wish that may not include the worldly, elegant Madeleine. George’s frustrated, jealous younger brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie), seems to want to be left alone, though through his angry outbursts, we also glimpse flashes of his desire to connect with the other members of his family, if he can manage to do so on his own sullen terms. He’s equally disconnected from and disdainful of his overly cheerful and very pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), who wants Johnny to be as in love with her as he was back when they were in high school.

The family’s quietly supportive father, Eugene (Scott Wilson), holds the whole clan together, as unlikely as it seems for such a reticent, soft-spoken character. He intuits both the genuine love and the various levels of pain in those who surround him, and his gentle quietude is his way of both respecting and enduring that knowledge. He, too, works toward a single goal throughout the duration of the movie; just prior to Madeleine’s arrival, we overhear him whisper to himself, “I’m gonna make her a bird.” The product of his careful woodworking during the film, nevertheless, isn’t presented to her in the end. He pockets the tiny bird instead, knowing that the act of creating something out of love for someone is more important than the gratification of offering the gift itself, and knowing that he will see her in the future and it can wait until later.

Much of Junebug, in fact, is spent waiting: waiting for an air mattress to inflate itself on the floor of the guest bedroom, waiting for George and Madeleine to arrive, waiting for Johnny’s ride to his warehouse job to show up, waiting for David Wark to make his decision about Madeleine’s proposed contract, waiting for characters to show what they feel, waiting for them not to show what they feel. Some of the film’s key scenes unfold in complete silence, simple jump-cut still shots of the empty rooms in the family’s two-story, suburban house, which becomes just as much of a character as those who reside inside of it, shaping their personalities and the way we perceive them. We also see numerous shots of the family’s three couples nestled separately in their beds, suggesting that the film is to some degree a study in the mechanisms and nuances of intimacy.

Several film reviewers have criticized the movie’s male characters for coming off as too underdeveloped, but I find them to be just as complex as the movie’s spunkier female characters. The men simply express their emotions in ways other than language, with their eyes and gestures of consent or dismissal, just as many of the men did during my own childhood in rural Ohio, and more recently throughout my adult life in metropolitan areas along the East Coast. This quality makes one of the film’s most pivotal moments all the more profound, when George sings a hymn about coming home, a cappella, at a church potluck, and gives Madeleine a new and richer understanding of the place where he was raised.

Of course, we also wait for the imminent arrival of Ashley’s baby, whose pre-birth nickname we learn is shared with the film’s title. It’s better if I don’t explain anything more about that here, except to mention that Amy Adams’ inspired, career-making performance is entirely worthy of the Academy Award nomination that she received for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. I recall watching a few lone men sitting in the theater at the festival screening of the film that I attended, and they responded with openly visible feeling to the scene that surely secured Adams her Oscar nod.

Phil Morrison’s direction is nothing short of extraordinary, and I anxiously await another feature film from him in the future. A native of Winston-Salem, he shows his roots faithfully and abundantly in the movie’s details, from the characters’ recognizable, no-nonsense attitudes to his affinity for the area’s vibrantly green landscape. There’s a deliberate quirkiness to the film’s style (accompanied by Yo La Tengo’s offbeat musical score) that’s analogous to David Wark’s bizarrely visionary paintings, partly comical and partly disturbing. It’s in this liminal zone and mixture of conflicting tones thanks largely to Angus MacLachlan’s textured screenplay and regionally precise dialogue — where the characters’ truthfulness manifests most clearly, making us both laugh and flinch at the emotional situations in which they find themselves. I’m reminded of what I like to call the “deep caricatures” portrayed in Mike Leigh’s finest films. We feel as if we know these characters because their idiosyncrasies make them so accurately honest, yet that same cartoonishness distances us from them and reminds us that what we’re viewing is not actual life, but a work of art.

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