I’ve been lucky the past few weeks.
I say “lucky”, because as a film buff,… as someone who loves to dive into the gigantic pool of cinema (often daily), I watch many films that lack substance.
Away We Go wasn’t like that, and Junebug certainly isn’t either.
JuneBug was absolutely a joy to watch from the moment George Johnsten uttered his character’s first words, “I’m from Pfafftown, North Carolina.”
As many of my readers know, I’ve lived and grown up in the city of Winston-Salem, not fifteen minutes away from where this story takes place. And although North Carolina is the host state for many movies (primarily Wilmington, NC), very few have had stories so closely affixed to our “Southern ways,” not-to-mention the universal complications within families, Life, and our place in them.
Meet George Johnsten (Alessandro Nivola) a charming, near-perfect Southern gentleman.
It’s been three years since he’s been home to visit his family, and it just so happens that his wife, a passionate and career-driven Chicago art dealer, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), must visit a reclusive artist in Pinnacle, North Carolina (not far from where George grew up). Seeming like the perfect opportunity to meet her hubby’s family for the first time, her visit creates a windstorm of emotion and uncovers more than could ever have been perceived, about her in-laws, her relationship with George and herself.
Strangely enough, my celebrity crush of Amy Adams, who plays George’s doe-eyed, child-like and very pregnant sister-in-law didn’t officially begin until I saw this film. Nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actress (2005)” for her role as Junebug’s “Ray of Southern light,” is an inquisitive and perpetually “sunny” character that says (virtually all in one breath):
[Ashley; about Madeleine] I wonder what she looks like. I bet she’s skinny. She probably is. She’s skinnier’n me and prettier too. Now I’ll hate her. I can’t wait!
But obviously she never does (hate her)… as Ashley doesn’t seem to hate anyone.
Ashley’s clearly the “creme-filled center” of Junebug (if you find the “creme” to be the yummiest part of the doughnut), however this film’s sugary-goodness comes from the remaining cast. Peg (played by Celia Weston), the matriarchal mother-in-law to Madeleine, does two things: voices her opinions and looks after her young’ns. Her husband, Eugene (Scott Wilson) plays the role of the tight-lipped father… a common trait among spouses of brazen, out-spoken, women. Even though through most of George and Madeleine’s visit Eugene’s looking for a lost screwdriver (a “Phillips head”), his character shines with the reality of what many good ol’ Southern boys become (especially with a wife such as Peg). Sometimes what Eugene says is for his benefit only, mostly he keeps quiet, and (like many of us) conveys a Buddhistic wisdom. Consider for a moment a tense moment in the film when Madeleine walks in on a private conversation between Eugene and Peg. Maybe she heard what Peg had said about her; maybe not. Peg gets up from the table and leaves the room.
[Madeleine] She’s a very strong personality.
[Eugene] That’s just her way. She hides herself. She’s not like that inside. (pause) Like most.
Where the story comes up short is through the character of Johnny (Ben Mckenzie), Ashley’s frustrated and tantrum-giving husband. He’s a torrent of anger and self-loathing; second-rate when it comes to his successful brother, and emotionally handicapped when it comes to showing affection (this is, perhaps, because he feels that he is undeserving of it). This is evident in the scene where Johnny desperately scrambles to tape a television show on meerkats. He knows Ashley loves them. But like everything in his life thus far, he fails. Either the acting of Ben Mckenzie was over-done, or it was poor directing on Morrison’s part,… but it was very hard to believe that Ashley; adorable and pregnant – quite plumply of a bump with his child, could ever arouse such anger and internal discord.
The only other sour point, comes by way of the mentally-challenged, heavily accent, “sought after” genius artist, David Walk. He lives in Pinnacle, NC (which gives us sentimental Carolinians a beautiful shot of Pilot Mountain) but paints lurid, allegorical pictures of American history. Madeleine, intent on signing and representing him in the art world, comments over a particular piece -
I like all the dog heads and computers,… and scrotums.
I know very little of art, but the art that I do have an appreciation for… makes sense. People look like the people they are drawn after. Picasso, someone whose work I wouldn’t pay for (if I never knew the value) seems more like art than the shallow and jejune “art” described as “breath-taking.”
Junebug, written by Angus MacLachlan and directed by Phil Morrison, is…above all else… a story that shows that the problems of Life can seldom be solved within the scope of a single film. The evolution of the character’s relationships with one another, the deep undercurrent of emotion and pain, and any sort of resolution or understanding cannot be deciphered in 106 minutes (nor could it be solved in 300). I can’t wait to personally own this film, not only to watch again, but to pass amongst my fellow North Carolinians as a relatable, highly-authentic story about real people… living, loving… and dealing.