Junebug is a great example of just how powerful art can be when done right. The film is great precisely because everything about it rings true. It captures perfectly familial ties, the world of the small town, the awkwardness of the outsider, the complexities of human emotions. The story opens with art dealer Madeleine meeting and falling in love with George, and getting married after a whirlwind romance. Roughly six months later, she learns of an eccentric artist named David Wark, whom she believes will be the next big thing. As it so happens, David also happens to live near George's family, so they decide that it might be a good idea for Madeleine to meet them for the first time.
The rest of the film is basically a few things. Firstly, I thought it a great film about what happens when two cultures meet - the first meeting between Madeleine and Ashley, her exuberant sister-in-law being a case in point. Ashley fires off a barrage of questions, one after the other, leaving the more proper Madeleine gasping for breath. To a question of her origins, we learn that she is from the East Coast, has had quite an international upbringing, having been born in Japan and lived in Africa. The wide-eyed Ashley, by contrast, has lived in her birthplace (North Carolina) her whole life.
Sarah Lanier's division of hot and cold-climate cultures works pertinently here, as we see glimpses of how much family, roots, and communality are modeled in this little town in contrast to the more goal-oriented, privacy-valuing culture Madeleine hails from. Madeleine hilariously tries to fit in and often not quite succeeding, for instance often going over-the-top in her kissing of various family members by way of greeting.
On a related note, it is also a film about homecoming. The film often lingers on shots of various rooms in the house (where the majority of the film takes place). We get repeated shots of George lying on the sofa, and we can imagine that this is something he did often as a boy. More glimpses of his past in this Southern town are found when he goes to a church fete, and his pastor jokingly tells him that he won't escape without singing a hymn. He obliges, to the crowd's delight, and the amazement of his wife, who realises how little she knows about her husband's own story.
Yet home is not a utopian place either, as we find tension between Jonny, George's younger brother, who never graduated from high school. Jonny is resentful of his older brother, who's "made it big", as it were.
And this is another strength of the movie, in that it is also a movie about characters, each, you feel, with a rich, complex story of their own to tell. This is testimony not only to a strong script, but strong performances across the board from all the actors/actresses. Jonny could easily have been a two-dimensional character, but we are able to sympathise with him as we realise that he is simply frustrated with his own failures and requires a coping mechanism. In one telling scene, Jonny, whom we've seen as being less than a perfect husband to Ashley, sees a documentary on meercats on TV. Knowing that his wife loves meercats, he tries to tape it. He fails to do so and takes it out on his wife. In this little vignette I suspect all of us recognises ourselves. Which of us have not tried to do something with good intentions, failed to do so, and in frustration take it out on someone else, only to feel even more guilty about it later?
Amy Adams is a revelation as Ashley, who is the sweetest character in the film. Adams received an Oscar nomination for her role, and it is easy to see why, as she never allows Ashley to veer into caricature despite the fact that it would have been easy to do so. Ashley is the most secure person in the film; she recognises her limitations(eg. her lack of education) but never obssesses over it. She invests in the role so much that we come away not thinking Ashley as completely naive, but rather infused with an infectious optimism. This is especially so in one of the climatic scenes between Ashley and George towards the end of the film, where we discover that she refuses to allow cynicism to reign over hope.
But Madeleine is also played right, so that we don't think of her simply as a posh city slicker, but someone who is genuinely trying her best to fit in to the best of her ability. The parent-in-laws are well-done too, as I can think of plenty of people just like the quiet, self-effacing father Eugene and the worldly-wise mother Peg.
The film doesn't try to spin one big "message" that it must push, rather it allows the audience to simply live with one family for a few days, recognising the complexities of life while gently bringing up questions of human relationships, human nature, and the search for roots for us to ponder upon. And for this, it merits full marks from me.
[NOTE: Unfortunately this probably won't be the beginning of a blogging renaissance, as I will likely be with limited internet access for the entire summer. So just to let you know what's happening with me, two big things - 1) helping to plan a wedding (no, not my own!) and 2)finding a job. Don't worry, this blog hasn't been abandoned yet!]
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