directed by Phil Morrison
(Sony, 2005)

Junebug is a small gem of a movie that doesn't overreach its small-town roots.

As screenwriter Angus MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison prove, a small town, examined in all its details, is no less rich, maddening, suffocating or inspiring than the big city. And what makes it fascinating is that those details, so well-known to the people who live there that they don't notice them, are what push Junebug past the "Golden Boy Returns Home" genre.

George (Alessandro Nivola) is that golden boy, raised in North Carolina but now worlds away in Chicago. His new wife Madeleine, a gallery owner, gets a lead on an "outsider" artist who lives near George's family.

So, since she's never met the 'rents, they'll combine a visit to sign the artist to a contract with a visit home for George (it's telling that the family was not invited to the wedding). There, they meet George's mother, Peg (the wonderful Celia Weston), a take-charge personality who rules the house; her silent husband, Eugene (Scott Wilson); George's resentful younger brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie from The O.C.); and Johnny's hugely pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams, who steals the show in an Oscar-nominated performance).

Everyone has a role to play in this family, and the arrival of George and Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) throws that already imbalanced detente dangerously off kilter.

Junebug covers the visit of those few days, as Madeleine woos, nearly loses and then wins a contract with her artist; as George slips back into the role of charmer -- which he seems to find both truly felt and stifling; as Johnny, stymied in trying to find his way, pulls away from Ashley; and as Ashley, a truly innocent, vivacious young woman, struggles to make sense of unfamiliar turmoil.

It's all about relationships, and this family -- and their small town (it was filmed in Winston-Salem, N.C.) are too insulated to easily accommodate newcomers, however well-meaning. Add to that the fact that Madeleine is a real exotic -- born in Japan in a diplomatic family, an urbanite at heart and not steeped in southern Christianity -- and conflict is inevitable.

Yet voices are never raised. Issues are not raised out loud. The life in this family, like in many small towns, is below the surface, and is borne out with an attention to detail that knows the difference between "simple" and "simple-minded." The city people aren't all hard; the small-town people aren't all kind and slow. Real life doesn't work that way, and Junebug often reads as close to a slice of life as you'll find.

As an aside, screenwriter MacLachlan has handed Davidtz, Weston and Adams three interesting women to inhabit -- much more interesting than Junebug's men. George is fascinating, but only because we realize as the movie progresses that his new wife knows him as little as we do. And at the end, we still don't know what he really feels about his family or his new life, two worlds which can appreciate each other but find it nearly impossible to mesh.

Even if this doesn't sound like your kind of movie, the performance of Adams as the always-effervescent Ashley comes shaded with an underlying loneliness and uncertainty that is at once heart-breaking and full of resolve. It, alone, is enough reason to see Junebug -- but I'd recommend all the rest of it, too.

by Jen Kopf
13 May 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.