Director Phil Morrison’s first feature film oozes with indie credibility: Female protagonist Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) is a dealer of outsider art, songster Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy) appears as one of her local talent scouts, and the score was written and arranged by art-rock pioneers Yo La Tengo. The critics have taken note: The flagship quotation in the film’s trailer boldly proclaims that the work will establish Morrison amongst the ranks of Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant and Woody Allen.
That quote is apt, if only for the suggestion that Morrison belongs to a wave of filmmakers recently intrigued by the dynamics of family and outsiders (“Melinda & Melinda,” “Broken Flowers” and Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” come to mind). Yet “Junebug” lacks the vivacity, imagination and ambition of those films. Unfortunately, it is a film about family that leaves the unsettling and disappointing impression that the viewer now knows less, and not more, about family as a result of watching it.
The film begins when Madeleine travels to rural North Carolina to court a local artist and to meet the family of her husband George (Alessandro Nivola). There’s tension from the very start. While Madeleine collects and sells paintings, George’s parents Eugene and Peg (Scott Wilson and Celia Weston) labor as a seamstress and woodworker, respectively. Madeleine is urbane and wordly, as George’s disaffected brother Johnny (OC heartthrob Benjamin McKenzie) struggles to earn his GED, and his homebound pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams) pesters the family with incessant chatter.
Many moviegoers will be disappointed with Morrison’s decision to dwell on these obvious character contrasts rather than developing a substantial narrative or emotional arc. One can’t help but wonder if and how these conflicts will be resolved.
That said, the film’s most interesting aspect is its sharp focus on the characters’ overlapping interactions within the singular space of a house. Morrison’s dominant technique is to emphasize the family’s psychological separation through their physical separation. His grainy camera moves through the thin walls of the house, observing the family as muffled snippets of ongoing conversations are overheard elsewhere.
Indeed, sound plays a tremendous role in the film, with silence taking up just as large a space as the dialogue. The men are largely quiet throughout the movie. Wilson is terrifically understated as he wanders listlessly around the house, while McKenzie unfortunately has little chance to exhibit much more than his trademark broodiness (although here his roguish mug is adorned with a white-trash moustache). Even Nivola isn’t granted many lines, though he steps forward to offer an unexpectedly beautiful rendition of the hymn “Softly and Tenderly” at a church gathering.
It’s the women of the family who are the talkers. Davidtz’s Madeleine is reserved yet diplomatic, while Weston’s Peg is pointed in her speech. But it’s really Adams who is the standout among the cast. Her Ashley is naive and exuberant, unabashedly eager to know and like Madeleine.
But most striking is her complete and utter candor. When she insists that Madeleine tell her her life story when they first meet, Madeleine modestly jokes, “That would be so boring!” “Not to me!” Ashley insists, and she is met with a stunned silence both from a disbelieving Madeleine and a rapt audience. It’s one of the few moments of the film that really rings true.
In stark contrast, we are told annoyingly little about Madeleine and George. Other than mentioning that her father worked in the foreign service, Madeleine never once makes any mention of her own family. She obviously also knows little about George’s family — she struggles to memorize their names and mistakenly refers to his mother Peg as “Pat” for the first third of the film. And Peg rightly worries that Madeleine doesn’t even know George: As the two women prepare sandwiches for Madeleine and George’s drive home, Madeleine is shocked to discover that her husband eats mayonnaise.
Just as Madeleine eventually reflects on her rushed marriage to George, we too come to face the fact that we know little about him. Why did he leave North Carolina for Chicago? What does he do there? What is the reason for Johnny’s animosity towards him? These mysteries remain unsolved, as is perhaps the most important issue of all: How the two came to marry. It is the film’s ultimate flaw that its core lies in these unanswered questions — those eerie silences.