A reflection/review from Mbird friend Russ Masterson (with maybe a little help from DZ). If you haven’t grabbed Russ’ new e-book 40 Days Without Food, what’s stopping you?
While attending the Mockingbird Conference in NYC last spring, a fellow attendee rattled off all the under-the-radar movies he thought I should see. I remembered a few and added Junebug to my Netflix queue that night. A few months later the DVD arrived, only to be placed in our cabinet and forgotten for another month. Then, last weekend, we dusted it off and hit play.
The film begins with soft-spoken George (Alessandro Nivola) meeting and falling for the beautiful, sophisticated Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz). The two get married, and before long, a work opportunity takes them from their big city Chicago life and to George’s Bible-belt hometown in North Carolina, where his family still lives.
They arrive to find the house mired in passive aggression, and the focus shifts to George’s sister-in-law, Ashley, played by Amy Adams (in her breakout role). Ashley is married to George’s somewhat-deadbeat younger brother Johnny, and they live in her in-law’s house. She’s pregnant, very much hoping the baby will solve her problems and win her the attention of her husband, not to mention the acceptance of her new sister-in-law. You watch as Ashley awkwardly tries to earn their affection, and while painful, you can’t help but love her for it. You feel her unhappiness at being immersed in a culture of non-communication and pretending. Adams plays the character perfectly: ditzy and tragic, but sweet and open-handed with her heart. We see her as both a victim of “performance culture” and a picture of grace in her sweetness toward others that don’t necessarily deserve it.
At first glance, it could seem that director Phil Morrison might be making a stereotypical, almost clichéd, judgment about Southerners and their simple Christian ways (i.e. small-minded and suppressed). But as the story develops, Embeth Davidtz’s character, the intelligent and attractive new member of the family, shows herself to be just as self-consumed and victimized by performance, not with the burden of failure or complacency but ambition.
The relationship between George and Madeleine may shine on the surface but slowly we realize that it is based almost solely on projection, sex, and mutual delusion. Each night, while the other couples in the house go to sleep in haunting aloneness, they make love on a noisy air mattress. Yet we never see George and Madeleine talk—a commentary perhaps on the real state of their intimacy. It’s thorns amongst roses. You admire their cultural sophistication and sexual connection but despair in their lack of actual knowing and caring for one another.
By the end of the film, the dysfunction of the situation is clear as day, but so is the reality that there is some love in the house, lurking under the surface, behind the hesitancies and conditions. We may resent the film for showing us such an honest portrayal of family life and general backwater ignorance, but you also can’t shake the hopefulness it has for these characters. In fact, in a stunning and unexpected moment of grace, George, who has a beautiful voice, is asked to sing an impromptu “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is calling…” at a church fellowship dinner. The setting may be a tad corny – they really nail the whole church basement/kitchen vibe – but the words carry undeniable power.
The characters in Junebug are such an unhappy bunch, bound and silenced by their lack of honesty toward their relationships, clueless about their self-centeredness and doubts. The family sulks and pretends their way through each day, each character withholding love, or anything warm, until the other person does something to warrant it. This something is never done, so the other thing is never given. Instead, there is little resolve, leaving the viewer face to face with reality, as some might say that all great works of art do. Junebug is a true gem of a film.
After the movie finished my wife, Kristy, and I talked some about it, quickly realizing we wouldn’t be able to wrap it up in a pretty package. Finally Kristy got up from the couch to check on our sleeping daughters. “Don’t move,” she said.
She wasn’t being bossy. I’m loud. When I move I bump things, and when I bump things I wake our sleeping daughters. It was a conditional moment. If I bump something and wake those lovely girls, I’m out of the family. So I anxiously sit on the couch, the same place where I was perfectly comfortable the previous two hours. Yet now, under this condition, everything changed—I’m performing—I’m anxious.