27 December 2013

Phil Morrison's Junebug (2005)

In a brief interview and question-and-answer session on the extra features disc of this DVD, Amy Adams – who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Ashley in Junebug – seems to see the film in terms of universals. Well, I'd give a tiny 'yes' to this but also a huge 'no'.

Yes: Junebug is about love, passion, tolerance, maturity/immaturity, jealousy, etc. But no: it's also much more about the division between the shiny, sophisticated world of big city Chicago as opposed to smalltown Bible Belt-strapped North Carolina. Even through the tolerance shown in it, it screams difference.

Chicago-based outsider art dealer Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) has been married to George (Alessandro Nivola), who grew up in North Carolina, for just six months. She views the near-necessity of meeting outsider artist David Walk (Frank Hoyt Taylor) from North Carolina as a fine opportunity to meet her in-laws (who live just thirty minutes away) for the first time. But there are multiple problems here that Madeleine does her very best to circumnavigate by using a superb mix of cool laconicism and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of warmth to tap into when the occasion demands it.

Mother-in-law Peg (Celia Weston) is difficult, and father-in-law Eugene (Scott Wilson) comes over as almost emotionless, but young brother-in-law Johnny (Ben McKenzie) seems hostile, although it's actually the usually silent Eugene who (to use an appropriate tool image) hits the nail on the head when he later tells Madeleine that Peg 'hides herself', and then adds that most people do, obviously not only including his wife and himself in this. We clearly see Johnny – far too emotionally immature to be married let alone to be a father – inexpertly trying to record a program involving meercats (his wife Ashley's favorite animal): this is his very undemonstrative attempt to show his love.

But it's the very pregnant Ashley who has loved Madeleine before meeting her, who gushes clumsily and fires inappropriate question after inappropriate question as Madeleine justs acts po-faced, who (dishonestly, but endearingly) takes the blame for smashing one of Peg's ornaments that Madeleine has in fact smashed, who all but screams out to Madeleine her need to be loved. She also politely cautions Madeleine that she's been addressing Peg by the wrong name, causing Madeleine to say 'Oh fuck!', and with this interjection it seems some more ice is broken between the two women.

When Madeleine mentions to Ashley and Peg that she's not good with her hands, Ashley replies that she doesn't need to be, as she's 'clever'. This of course is not so much an allusion to the geographical distance between Chicago and North Carolina as to the cultural gap between the social class of Madeleine and that of her in-laws. But whereas Ashley is dazzled by Madeleine's difference, the rest of the household feel alienated by her, in spite of all her kisses and hugs. In their way, they're just as prejudiced towards her as Walk is to towards Jews and the people he calls 'niggers'* – a fact that Madeleine, in her financial dealing with Walk, brushes away with a mixture of her normal tolerance and commercial expediency.

All four in-laws are something of a mess, although Ashley – the only one of the four unrelated by blood – is by far the most sympathetic one, the only one whose character the audence can really love. Eugene, as usual, keeps his mouth shut about the way he feels toward Madeleine, although his wife thinks she's gone too far by staying up late with Johnny, speaks of 'Chicago ways' and (hopelessly incorrectly) thinks there's something wrong with her marriage to George. Madeleine has in fact been trying to help Johnny (who has a bum job as a packer) with his education – but he's a guy full of self-hate, jealous of his college-educated brother, and he throws his Cliffs Notes copy of Huckleberry Finn on the floor with a couple of impotent cries of 'Fuck!'. He thinks that she thinks he's just a hick, that she's making fun of him, and he unnecessarily tells her she's no better than him. OK, he's culturally and sexually frustrated, but all the same, maybe Madeleine shouldn't have thrown in a word like 'picaresque' or expected him to have heard of Don Quixote.

This is a delightful – but affecting – film. One of my favorite moments is when George gets up to sing an old hymn a cappella, and is joined by others: Madeleine appears spellbound, or maybe gobsmacked is more accurate: here is George, on his old turf, leading a religious group. She smiles broadly and claps at the end, although her reaction obviously has nothing to do with God: she's just delighted to see a new dimension in him, to catch a glimpse of him as he was some time before she met him in his new environment.

Thomas Wolfe was born in North Carolina – not very far from where this film took place – and famously wrote a novel called You Can't Go Home Again, which could be taken as the main message of this film. As George starts off on the interstate on the long trip back, the last words (before Madeleine soothingly touches his hair) are 'I'm so fuckin' glad to be outta there'.
*Oddly, Walk paints slaves being freed but can only paint their faces white as he doesn't know any blacks.

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