Family happens. In this favorite from 2005's indie circuit and Top 15ish lists, worldly and urbane newlywed Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) travels from her highbrow Chicago art gallery to meet her in-laws in North Carolina. Her primary objective is to secure an exclusive contract with an "outsider artist" (Frank Hoyt Taylor) producing hallucinogenic folk paintings near her husband George's boyhood home, not far from Winston-Salem, N.C. Like a backwoods William Blake, the dialect-heavy and mentally off-kilter artist exists not entirely on our plane. Admiring his vision of the Battle of Antietam, Madeleine says "I love all the dog heads and computers and scrotums." But she's convinced that he, as her "discovery," is destined to become an art-scene smash. She married George (Alessandro Nivola) only one week after meeting him at a Chicago art auction, so their side trip to his family home forces the couple to see each other in terms not yet tested in their sexually passionate relationship. Madeleine blithely cheek-kisses her way through George's rural kin, oblivious to the simple complexities of communication, engagement, and expectations that can make or doom all such encounters.
Junebug could have taken that setup and troweled on easy yuks from some Sweet Home Alabama Meets the Fockers bucket, with pickup trucks and guys named Beau or Skeeter. Fortunately, everyone involved here is more knowing, honest, and trusting than that. This is a measuredly comic South not of Jeff Foxworthy, but a suburban Lost in Translation by way of Flannery O'Connor, where folks eating spaghetti hot dish at a church social can more freely reveal themselves than those at a wine-and-cheese soiree in a cosmopolitan art gallery. The cultures don't clash, really, but they do scrape the chrome off each other's fenders.
Unhurried and subdued with a free-floating focus and tone, this is one of those spare, ruminative indies where plot isn't so much a straight line as a collection of small, soft dots. As an ensemble showcase for its acting talent, it's a master class in beautifully written and played understatement. The family's center of gravity is matriarch Peg (Celia Weston), who regards Madeleine as if George had brought home a being from Alpha Centauri. As George's brother Johnny, Benjamin McKenzie ("The O.C.") bottles the pent up hostility of a high-school dropout bitter in George's shadow and with a wife nine months pregnant. That would be Ashley (Amy Adams), a flighty chatterbox who idolizes sophisticated Madeleine with child-eyed ebullience. The disconnect between Madeleine and George's family (and Madeleine and George) reaches its harshest test when Madeleine must choose between a career-making opportunity and a family crisis involving Ashley.
A lot of glasses have been raised to Amy Adams' ambrosial charm in a funny and achingly tender performance. Sure enough, joy-touched Ashley makes Junebug worthwhile all by herself. Adams really is splendid, delivering one of the year's most enjoyable performances through surprising subtleties and layers, earning every inch of her Sundance special grand jury prize, Indie Spirit Award, and an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress.
That said, another actor also worth calling out from this all-over excellent ensemble is Scott Wilson, who plays George's acutely taciturn father Eugene. Wilson, who began his career as one of the killers in In Cold Blood, makes choices that are the polar opposite of Adams' giddy, uninhibited Ashley. Eugene's immobile, pinched-lipped, hands-in-pockets quietude gives us a stealth performance that's more impressive than any action hero.
Director Phil Morrison's first feature returned him to Winston-Salem, where he was born. With Junebug he displays a confidence made sharper by his monkish restraint. He brings to the material an eye for resonant metaphors and ambiguities, as well as, thank you, a knack for elaborating the idiosyncrasies of this fragile family and where they live without coming off classist or mocking. (Those of us raised in this flavor of the South likely recognize, and appreciate, the film's delicate authenticities more than viewers from elsewhere.) Playwright-turned-screenwriter Angus MacLachlan, a graduate from the North Carolina School of the Arts drama program, has a tuning-fork ear for the dialogue. Together they sculpted these characters out of native clay, then with his actors Morrison pared them down, down, down to an atomized level of judiciously exposed revelations.
The result is a concatenation of scenes that place much of the telling in their ellipses. For some viewers, this less-is-more approach will leave too much information offscreen. George, for instance, is so far in the background that he abandons his wife, and the rest of the film, until his cue comes near the end. Junebug risks feeling like the common notion of a New Yorker-style novelette: a meticulously crafted, lovingly realized character study of someone doing the dishes. On the other hand, one of many reasons to love Junebug is how often it offers us spaces to fill in ourselves, the faith it shows in handing us small puzzles Eugene's hand-carved bird, for instance to chuckle over or think on afterward.
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Sony's DVD edition of Junebug brings the film home in a great-looking anamorphic transfer (1.78:1). Likewise befitting a new disc of a recent Oscar-talked film, the Dolby Digtial 5.0 audio prompts no complaints. A generous selection of extras do a better job of giving us a behind-the-scenes experience than most "making-of" featurettes that are more scripted and budget-showy. Actors Amy Adams and Embeth Davidtz get the commentary track, and we eavesdrop on their dialogue covering production memories scene by scene, their processes of developing their characters, and personal thoughts on their director, their castmates, the terrific Yo La Tengo soundtrack and most candidly themselves. It's lightweight and pleasant enough, and isn't stuffy or over-prepared.
Ten deleted or extended scenes (about 20 minutes total) frequently come in the form of workprint takes revealing alternate variations of a scene. It's a shame that one lovely scene between Peg and Eugene was cut, but we're glad to have it here. Five short promo junket clips focus on the Winston-Salem locations and local actors, then on actors Nivola, McKenzie, Adams, and Weston discussing their character work. "Casting Sessions" is raw audition footage of Adams and McKenzie presenting varying approaches to key scenes. A photo gallery of the Outsider Art provide an up-close look at the bizarre paintings created for the film.
Finally, one of the better trailer galleries around puts Capote, 2046, The Squid and the Whale, Thumbsucker, Breakfast on Pluto, and other indies worth looking for on the menu. Keep-case.