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Junebug is a 2005 American comedy-drama film directed by Phil Morrison. It was released on August 3, 2005 and stars Amy Adams, Alessandro Nivola, Embeth Davidtz, and Benjamin McKenzie. It was filmed in the North Carolina towns of Pfafftown, McLeansville, and Winston-Salem and in New Mexico. When newlywed Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), an art dealer, travels from Chicago to North Carolina to pursue a local, self-taught painter (Frank Hoyt Taylor) for her outsider art gallery she takes the opportunity to meet the family of her husband George (Alessandro Nivola) who live close by. There is his flinty, judgmental mother Peg (Celia Weston); his reserved, contemplative father Eugene (Scott Wilson); and his sullen, resentful, twenty-ish brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie) who, although married, still lives at home, and is studying for his high school equivalence certificate while working at Replacements, Ltd. as an order processor. Johnny married his wife, Ashley, before either of them finished high school. Relations between Johnny and Ashley are strained, with Ashley believing that a baby will solve their marital problems.
The choice to deny us time with George, which could be spent showing more of his relationship with his new wife, or dropping further clues as to why his brother resents him deeply, is all the more puzzling considering Morrison's (and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan's) eye for characters and detail. The Southern family is not altogether pleasant, but nor are they corn-fed caricatures; Madeleine, who is on the trip mostly to recruit a Southern outsider artist for her Chicago gallery, is well-meaning and only self-centered in the most human ways. Celia Watson masters the low-key hostility of a vaguely, perpetually annoyed mother; the family's varying degrees of wariness toward their new in-law feels right, though it's rarely articulated.
One member of the family embraces Madeleine immediately. While George naps on the couch, or stops for gas for what seems like at least an hour (you could make a game of imagining more elaborate reasons for Nivola's absence from much of the picture), Madeleine strikes up an awkward friendship with wide-eyed and eternally optimistic chatterbox Ashley. Amy Adams, who I've apparently seen in several films plus one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and never remembered until now, takes over the film in these passages, playing Ashley with sweet, heartbreaking enthusiasm. When Madeleine mentions that she was born in Japan, Adams says more about her character with the timing and inflection of her reaction line ('You did not!') than many actors give us in 90 minutes. It's one of the best performances of the year.
So Junebug is a movie filled with terrific scenes and strong performances; unfortunately, Morrison wedges between these scenes lingering of empty rooms, and bugs buzzing around tall grass. It's not the extended staticness that I object to; look at what Gus Van Sant does with similar shots in movies like Last Days. But Van Sant's recent films are about mood and atmosphere, and they drift around accordingly; Morrison has made a movie about actual characters, only to nudge the audience in their sides and call attention to what other critics have deemed his 'sense of place.' But 'sense of place' is what we see in the background of scenes, not in a 10-second shot of an empty bedroom.
There are moments when self-conscious artiness meets truthful observations head on. Occasionally Morrison will cut from one room of the house to another before the previous scene's conversation is finished, and we can hear the muffled sounds of its continuation through the walls; the effect is uneasily familiar, and sort of beautiful.
Morrison may well be a good director, as so many of Junebug's moments and performances resonate like this; indeed, one of the most surprising aspects of his movie is the way it's naturally good without crossing over into greatness. Perhaps it's abundance of focus; he zeroes in on certain details with such laserlike concentration that the rest of the movie will recede into the background. His empathy for the characters, though, is tangible. Maybe that's why it takes George so long to visit the gas station; maybe he keeps pulling over to look at the grass.
The DVD includes commentary from Adams and Davidtz, deleted scenes, screen tests, and a making-of featurette.