Well, can you, or can't you go home again? 2005 brought movie fans two stories about an oldest son taking his significant other home to meet the family for the first time—"The Family Stone," and this modest little independent film, "Junebug." While it would seem tougher to meet prospective in-laws and siblings who are mildly eccentric New England intellectuals facing myriad crises than to repeat the challenge in North Carolina, the big difference between these two films is the narrative structure and tone. "The Family Stone" has a slick sheen, with plot twists so neat that they can seem contrived, along with well-polished scenes that alternately solicit laughter and tears. It's enjoyable, but there are plenty of times when you're reminded that you're watching a movie, especially when the camera lingers and you're wiping those tears and starting to suspect you're being played like a violin. On the other hand, "Junebug" has the feel of a home movie. Not every line seems significant, and not every scene is structured with obvious purpose, and the emotional core seems pure and unadulterated.
Director Phil Morrison steers a steady, low-key course, avoiding big moments on either end of the emotional spectrum. Because he goes for loving realism and quiet truths, you walk away from this film feeling as if you've witnessed life as it's really lived. To his credit, Morrison, who also wrote the screenplay, avoids the easy humor that can result from a clash of cultures. Neither big city sophistication nor small town simplicity is ridiculed or celebrated. People are who they are in this beguiling film, and we're to accept them as Morrison has. And the fact is, they're a likeable bunch—even when they're misbehaving.
The tone is set early in the pre-title sequence, when we're shown close-ups of individual southern men "hollerin'" without knowing exactly what they're doing or why we're watching them. Because they're presented matter-of-factly, we accept them as such—though the cameras quickly shift to an upscale art auction in Chicago to benefit the re-election of Jesse Jackson, Jr.. Before the title sequence is over, we're watching gallery owner Madeleine (Embeth Davis) get passionate with one of the bidders after the place has cleared. And so we're introduced to George (Alessandro Nivola), who, after being married to her for six months, decides the perfect time to introduce her to the family is when she needs to visit an "outsider" artist who lives not far from the family's home.
Filmed in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and using plenty of local actors and extras, "Junebug" is as loving a portrait of the South as we've seen in the movies. Forget the southern Gothic characters or Billy-Bob syndrome, where every cliché associated with rednecks is applied to everyone living in the South. Whether it's ladies arranging pot lucks in church basements, workers joking and laughing at the Replacements, Ltd. packing department, or women talking over each other at a baby shower, Morrison's cameras linger with the light touch of an insider, not a bemused ethnographer. Even when he zeroes in on naïve, self-taught artist David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), with his humorous insertion of penises into pictograph-style descriptions of Civil War battles, the humor is directed at the art, not the artist.
The most lovable character is Ashley (Amy Adams), who endears herself to us in the very first scene. She's pregnant as a house and perky as a cheerleader, talking about how much weight she's lost because she's been cutting down on the food and speculating that George's wife is "probably prettier than I am. I'm gonna hate her," she says gleefully. "I can't wait." But when George drives up with Madeleine, it's Ashley, whose bubbly acceptance borders on infatuation, who is most accepting and ensures that Madeleine has a chance with her new mother-in-law, Peg (Celia Weston). She takes the blame for a plaster bird that Madeleine accidentally knocked off the wall upon entering the house, and tries to bond with her like a woman hungry for sisterhood. Her lack of self-consciousness and the fact that her adoration is aimed at the idea of best friends rather than the individual or the lifestyle, along with Madeleine's acceptance of her as she is, somehow puts them on even terms. As Adams flits from here to there in her monologues, she's nothing short of mesmerizing, and from the opening scene it's her show—which is only fitting, since the title comes from her desire to call her baby Junebug, regardless of sex.
But there's much more to savor in this quiet film. Scott Wilson's portrayal of the taciturn father who feels but finds it hard to express love is a quintessential characterization of not just southern men, but men from that generation. Ben McKenzie also does a fine job as the younger brother who's thrown off his game when big brother comes to town, and his response is to ratchet his surliness and sullenness up a few notches. But the visuals and soundtrack are also charming love-letters to the region, from the zippy Syreeta version of Stevie Wonder's "Harmour Love" and Yola Tengo's fits-like-a-glove score, to director of photography Peter Donahue's appreciative slide-shows of the North Carolina landscape and houses. If you don't walk away from this film humming the title tune and thinking positively about life and people, there's something wrong with you.
Video: Though there's a slight graininess that's especially noticeable in shots against a light sky, the overall picture quality is very good. "Junebug," which was shot using 16mm Kodak film, is mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Audio: The audio soundtrack is quite good—bright, with a subtle bass and a heavier treble emphasis, presented in English Dolby Digital 5.0 with French subtitles.
Extras: If you watch the 10 deleted scenes included here, you gain an appreciating of Morrison and editor Joe Klotz's method. The scenes that were cut either drag or they provide too much information. Some of them push the emotional envelope, and you can imagine Morrison saying, "Rein it in. Pull back," as he so admired McKenzie for doing in a role that easily could have been played more broadly.
The commentary with Adams and Davidtz is a mixed bag. Though they play off of each other well, the limitations of their knowledge of how the film was put together really shows. More than a few times they'll remark that they didn't know whether this character or that one was an actor or a local, then praise them for doing a great job regardless. It would have been nice to hear from Morrison, but there are a few gems. Together, they point out junebugs on the lawn that the average moviegoer might mistake for bees. Davidtz tells how difficult it was for her to play love scenes opposite Nivola, because he was the husband of one of her good friends. Adams, who wasn't really pregnant during the film, points out a scene where a special effect matched her face to the belly of a real pregnant woman doing exercises, tells how she can't bear to watch her masturbation scene, and talks about how difficult it was for her to do one scene in the hotel-room casting session.
Interestingly enough, two of those hotel-room sessions with Adams and McKenzie are included, and they should remove prove to be eye-openers for would-be actors. Rounding out the extras are five short features on Places & Faces, Singing a Hymn, Meerkats Gone Wild, Ashley & Johnnie, and All About Peg. They're a mixture of reminiscence and information, with the actors including their takes on their characters and the people and area around Winston-Salem. All in all, it's a nice package of extras for an independent release.
Bottom Line: Sometimes it's an aggregate of small things that make a film ring true. With "Junebug," a lot of small things add up to something big. Mostly, this indy film has heart, and that comes from the obvious love and respect that writer-director Phil Morrison has for his characters.