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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Junebug" (2005)

“Junebug” came out of nowhere for me. I knew it only by title. I walked in knowing nothing of the story or where it would take me. It’s a freakish little movie in the most profound, poetic sense of the word. It has the ability to transport you to an everyday, sterile location, yet make you feel as though you just landed on Mars. Like the works of David Gordon Green or Jim Jarmusch, its characters say random, out-of-the-ordinary things, yet there’s not a single phony moment in the entire film. I felt simultaneously charmed and saddened by it, but most of all amazed. It came out of nowhere, but hopefully it won’t disappear anytime soon.

I love this movie for the same reason I love all great movies: Because I’ve never seen anything like it before, yet I recognize it in real life. It’s a movie that takes place in a small town, yet never feels compelled to make fun of its characters. In fact, these are some of the most complex, fascinating people you’ll see in a movie all year. You know how sometimes when you watch a documentary and you get to know an interesting person, they almost seem like a character straight out of a movie? Yet you watch it and you think, “You could never write this.” “Junebug” has written it.

It starts in Chicago when an art dealer named Madeline (Embeth Davidtz) has just fallen for George (Alessandro Nivola). They get married, but his family never attends the wedding. When Madeline hears about an eccentric artist in North Carolina named David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), she and George make a trip out of it by visiting the artist as well as George’s reclusive family. Almost immediately upon arrival, George retreats from the trials and tribulations of his own family while Madeline appears to be forgiving, accepting and open to their eccentricities and behavior.

Make no mistake, this is not a “Meet the Parents” type film. These are real people. George’s parents, Peg (Celie Watson) and Eugene (Scott Wilson), do not exist solely to make Madeline feel uncomfortable. Peg has her suspicions where city folk are concerned, but she shows it with a look or a gesture instead of openly declaring it around Madeline. Eugene has long since departed from the family in terms of his deep involvement with them. He spends much of the film hunting around for a Phillips head screwdriver for his wood carving.

Then there’s George’s troubled brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie), a young man trying desperately to get his GED, so long as he doesn’t have to read Huck Finn in its entirety. He has just married his high school sweetheart Ashley (Amy Adams), an openly chipper and curiously wise woman who is also very pregnant with Johnny’s child and could deliver at any moment. She takes an immediate shine to Madeline and she, in turn, reacts to Ashley’s forceful optimism not with contempt or discomfort (as we would expect from artistically minded city folk), but with equal kindness and support.

Two characters in “Junebug” stand out as being purely original creations, Ashley being one of them. Amy Adams gives a performance of such profound depth, yet it’s easy to be fooled by her upbeat nature early in the film. At first, we think that this is the “comic relief” or “caricature” of the family, but as the movie progresses, she reveals so much more and becomes the soulful center of the surroundings. She reveals the film’s key line of dialogue without a hint of pretension: “God loves you just the way you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.”

The other character is David Wark, the eccentric artist who paints Civil War reenactments, but because he doesn’t know any black men, he draws white faces on them instead. Many of the characters in his paintings have large penises. This, oddly enough, is not meant to be hilarious. The fact that Wark speaks so openly and with racist overtones is not meant to be disdainful. That’s just him. In any other film, we would wait for Madeline to have a crisis of conscience and realize she should not represent this man because of his beliefs. She doesn’t, which goes to show the sophisticated level on which this movie operates. It’s not about race. It’s about characters.

Phil Morrison directed “Junebug,” his feature debut, and it’s one of those first features that calls attention to itself without being off-putting. Morrison accurately conveys the quiet desperation and loneliness of its characters and their setting without ever once judging them. Many scenes end with long passages of silence and drive-by shots of houses and buildings. The screenplay by Angus MacLachlan defines its characters by their actions and subtleties, letting Johnny’s desperation to videotape a show on meerkats for his wife speak volumes about his character’s depth and frustrations. It’s a movie that has an improvisational feel at times, yet nothing gets lost in translation.

As I said before, hopefully this movie will not get lost in the shuffle of other great movies at the end of the year. Because of its lack of star power and its idiosyncrasies, it’s a movie you have to make people see, or they will simply ignore it. As I write this, the film is in its fourth week of release here in Chicago and has expanded to 55 screens across the country and has barely raked in $800,000 in grosses (according to It tends to go that way for these diamonds in the rough. Out of nowhere this movie comes, and back into nowhere it goes. I love it too much to let it stay that way.

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