Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sweet Relief: Junebug

At one point during the festival, Ebert said he didn't like film lists. ("Now that the AFI released its list we we know which are America's 100 Greatest Comedies," he said uncharacteristically sarcastically.) I'm with him — lists are critics' way of whistling in the dark — but if I did make a 2005 top ten, Junebug would surely take its rightful place.

Alternatively dry and giddy; intimate but not cloying, and teeming with spot-on performances, it describes the wide gap between some people's family of origin and family of choice — especially in a country that, ever-increasingly, is really two. George (toothsome Alessandro Nivola) meets cosmopolitan art dealer Madeline (Embeth Davidtz) and by the next scene they are married and hurdling down South to woo an uber-eccentric outsider artist. And, almost as an afterthought, introducing her to his family who lives nearby.

They are as provincial as she is sophisticated — his younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie) works in a factory and is grudgingly married to his high school sweetheart (Amy Adams), who's pregnant and mighty peppy; his mother (Celia Watson) gloomingly disapproves of Madeline's airs, especially since she can't cook or sew; his father (Scott Wilson) seems primarily consumed with his craft hobbies and his ongoing search for his screwdriver. And they are unabashedly, sincerely Christian in a way that very rarely is neutrally captured on modern celluloid, especially in a film targeting an "indie audience."

Director Phil Morrison hails from North Carolina and before Junebug mostly made his name directing music videos hipper than trucker hats in 2004. But despite that credential, the movie doesn't evidence the quick-tic edits that doom video-directors' features, except in a hilarious, jangly factory scene that introduces Johnny's coworkers by zooming into their nametags. Instead, it luxuriates in a lovely stillness, an Altman-like wandering eye that lingers on birchtrees outside of windows and neighbors standing in yards, and the sweet underbelly of each of its characters.

What's best about Junebug is also what soured some critical response (as Morrison himself acknowledged in the q and a's): George is by far its least articulated character though the entire film rotates around his sunny self. I resisted that choice initially as well, but it's actually honest and even brave. An acknowledgment that when a person's two families come together, the least relevant and powerful person ends up being the person himself. True, George may be too mysterious — we don't even know what he does for a living — but scenes of him skulking in his parents' basement while his wife gamely navigates her new, slightly wolfish mother-in-law ring painfully true. As does my favorite scene: a Christian fellowship dinner in which George sings a capella in a sweet, clear tenor while Madeline regards him with utter amazement. Who is this person that she has married?

And that's the point, isn't it? As George bids his mother goodbye, she says, "You're perfect. There's nothing wrong with you," and genuine pain flashes across his features. It is rough to soldier an entire family's dreams, self-abdicating and somehow self-erasing, and you glimpse then the tremendous relief afforded by a woman who may be too self-involved to truly get to know him, let alone pin her hopes on his varsity sweater. He is torn, yes, and his two outbursts near the end of the film — one in which he condemns Madeline for not supporting her new sister-in-law ("family matters," he says) and then a profane exclamation of relief when they finally leave — can only be reconciled by recognizing just how torn he is. Truly, truly, this film may be the best film about American family that has been made in the last decade.


Blogger Viola said...

Nice Blog:)

3:46 PM  

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