I know Jeff can (will!) pipe up about his appreciation of this, too–and I’m curious what others would/do/will think. But I think this is a fantastic film, with a distinct visual and narrative sensibility, and Phil Morrison should (will!) be a big name in American film in the next few years.

Plot in one line: rich Chicago art-gallery owner heads South with her husband to woo a strange folk artist, and stays a stretch with hubby’s family, who seem–at first–like a glorious gallery of absurdist Southern caricatures.

However, maybe halfway into the film, Madeline (the Northerner, played by Embeth Davidtz)) sits down to “help” her ridiculously-sullen brother-in-law Johnny (Ben McKenzie) write a paper on _Huck Finn_; she notes that Jim ends up, despite the cartoonish depiction of him earlier in the novel, having a rich moral complexity that surprises us. That is exactly this movie’s signal accomplishment: it takes–and amplifies, at times savagely, at times lovingly–a set of character types drawn from stock Southern grotesque, only to reveal layers and layers of (and layers) of ambiguity in their actions and demeanor. And not just in neat reversal: we don’t suddenly realize how wonderful they are; they remain frustratingly difficult to love, or never lose their cartoonish exaggerations. Nor do we replace a knee-jerk “othering” of the Southern goofs with a distaste for the Northern/cosmopolitan. Instead, the more you know about the characters, the less you know–they just get progressively more interesting. I want to watch the movie again just to experience ’em once more.

And the direction is equally intriguing in terms of space and sound. Morrison will start a scene with family in the kitchen, then shot by static shot move us away from that room, through the house–we see living room, stairs, basement, and hear a receding murmur of the continuing conversation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “environment” (home, countryside, town and townspeople) shot in quite this way, but damn it’s effective; again, the film develops this whole complex sense of a lived-in, living community that is never simply (anthropologically) revealed nor simply (ironically) surface-level.

Damn, I liked this. Last note: one of the nominees for best supporting actress–Amy Adams–is great as the seemingly wide-eyed naif sister-in-law. The whole cast is astonishing, but a special nod to Johnny. The character was almost painfully familiar to me, or familiar as an exaggerated representation of a brother I often exaggeratedly represent (to myself and others). And despite never setting aside the sullen, angry, mostly-internal performance, McKenzie is dazzling–sitting at the table, angrily looking away from others, blowing smoke like his innards were on fire, he somehow conveys a sense of pain that is heartbreaking.

9 thoughts on “Junebug

  1. During the opening of Junebug we discover what appears to be documentary outtakes from a hog hollering contest—the filmmakers appropriating an often ridiculed, southern American folk practice—and these images allow the viewer to adopt an elitist position (remember Johnny Carson’s wryly ironic double takes from the 70s and 80s). My first reaction was to laugh at the spectacle, yet the final “performance” offers up a vocally alienating rendition of the hymn “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.” This odd yet oddly affecting performance manages to transcend the grotesque, slowly taking on an eerily transcendent loveliness. As the vocal fades into the background, the image dissolves into a shot of rural woodlands, and this shot–bathed in silence–is held for quite some time until the title of the film interrupts the calm and splashes onto the screen. In the next shot we find ourselves in a metropolitan Chicago art gallery where two sexy professionals, George and Madeline, meet and seduce each other. Everything that occurs from here on grows directly out of these opening moments as the film works to make the strange and the estranged both beautifully complex and uncomfortably accessible.

    The art gallery, owned by Madeline, handles outsider artists—think Henry Darger or Howard Finster—and the film turns out to be a meditation on outsiders of all shapes and temperaments. Some are outsiders by choice, others by birth or geography, others are biologically determined, and others outsiders out of psychological or economic necessity. As the location shifts from Chicago to George’s hometown of Afton, North Carolina, the film reveals itself to be about the frustrating complexity of family and the ways in which all families are composed of outsiders searching to make sense out of the ties that bind. Perhaps the ultimate outsider is the independent film audience members for which this film was marketed, a group who find themselves gazing upon a world—the Bible belt—which is so easily made a mockery. At one point a character in George’s hometown looks at Madeline and with great respect and a warm smile notes, “You don’t know who you are yet, do you?” Junebug seems to take great pleasure in depicting characters making discoveries about themselves and the ones they love yet still find themselves unsure as to who they are. Indeed, the film forces the viewer to contemplate how one locates their place in the world.

    Mike is right about the way the camera will cut away from conversations only to move us further away into the unoccupied rooms of George’s childhood home. I’d like to spin that a bit further to argue that the filmmakers suggest the house (all of the homes in which we grew up and to which we still have access) reverberates with the contradictory often painful history of a family. Here the home is both a repository of the wonderful and the ugly and such spaces conjure up everything the characters wish to escape yet cannot let go.

    I’ll go on the record and declare I love this film. I wanted to show it to my wife and tonight we finally put it into the machine. About an hour into the film Nicola said she had to stop watching. The characters were too real for her; their situations and behaviors too difficult and painful to watch. I admit to being perplexed by her response. Any film that makes me uncomfortable, that taps into my own complex fears about connection and disconnection, is one I want to continue watching—she knows this about me—but this film dredged up the past for her in ways that she could not easily articulate. As a British expatriot married to a southern American boy and forced to live in eastern Tennessee for four years (after two years in the equally problematic yet ideologically comfortable Boulder, Colorado), she couldn’t finish the film. Given Junebug’s final scenes, I guess I’m glad she left when she did, but it made me think. How remarkable it must be to make a film whose commitment to creating deeply flawed, morally ambiguous yet likable characters who don’t reflect the easy stereotypes American culture generally embraces but imposes upon them characters whose very complexity forces some viewers to turn away. This film does hold up a mirror up to the viewer and what we see is not always pretty. It is unwilling to disparage fundamental religious belief systems. It reminds us how fragile we are and how tangled up we can get in our own family dysfunctions. Nicola’s flight from the film reminded me of Mike’s comments in his post. How could Mike possibly align himself with the passive aggressive, trapped and angry Johnny, George’s ne’er-do-well brother, who is working on his GED and is most comfortable in his skin when he is away from the family home where he continues to lives with his parents and his childlike yet endearingly compassionate wife (the truly amazing Amy Adams)while making ends meet by working at a local factory? Certainly Mike made a mistake. He must be referring to George, the handsome, young and successful protegal son who escaped his small town roots to make it big on the national stage. But, then again, one projects upon the film one’s own special sense of outsider status, especially when it comes to family, and for all of these reasons I hope you’ll check Junebug out.

  2. i know you’ve all been going crazy wondering where the hell i’d gone. this is where: http://www.picketline.blogspot.com (i’m so tired i can’t even bother to create a link). the place where i work can’t be made to pay a decent wage or give health insurance to its janitors, so they are on strike and we are marching ourselves silly out in the scorching-hot miami streets.

    frisoli should be told, however, that, in between rallies and press conferences, simon and i managed to watch the whole Leopard! it took us a good three weeks (i’m serious), but we managed. now it’ll take us another three weeks to watch the extras.

    and tonight we really, really wanted to go see Friends with Money, by Nicole Holofcener, same director who’s done Lovely and Amazing, at the Miami Film Festival. but we took a long nap instead, and couldn’t wake up in time to make the film.

  3. 1. Thank God Gio’s back, even if tired. And good luck with the continuing strike, marches, struggles….

    2. I didn’t identify with Johnny (the brother) as much as simply identify him within my own family circle–he reminded me of my brother, who’s never so sullen … well, just writing that I stop and think, hmmm, maybe at times. But, anyway, my amazement is that I did understand that character’s suffering, even as I continued to kind of dislike him–and it made me uncomfortable about how I respond to my brother, or how I characterize him.

    And, then again, I do not identify much at all with George (the city brother); Johnny is for me far more reminiscent of my sense of my self. Jeff’s reading of “outsider”-ness nails the film’s impact.

    3. Just in general, Jeff’s post expansively and expertly defines the film’s great strengths. We could probably boil it down to a word Jim Kincaid used to toss around: this film is generous. Its capacity for respect, even as it relies upon a corrosive or even scathing vision of character flaws, is truly amazing.

  4. it’s a really cute film. we just finished watching it. like frisoli, though, i think every movie is just 20 mins too long. i like the actress who plays madeleine. i’ve seen her before but don’t remember where. didn’t you think she was flirting with johnny? there was a lot of touching in this movie (it’s one of the best things about it), so i shouldn’t have been fooled, but i thought she was flirting with johnny and was surprised to learn she wasn’t.

    my favorite scene is the one in which johnny is crazy to tape the scene with the cute animals, for ashley.

    why doesn’t the father give the bird to madeleine, after all?

    i want to watch some honest-to-goodness european film now, with, like, normal people?

  5. we watched it last night. i liked it a lot. a lot. i don’t know however if i thought it was, as jeff puts it, “about the frustrating complexity of family and the ways in which all families are composed of outsiders searching to make sense out of the ties that bind”. or maybe it is about that but this lugubrious description of it drains all the discomfiting whimsy out of the film’s approach to it. i don’t know.

    i liked the director’s approach to space and his use of static people-less shots, and others of random people moving around to create a loopy rhythm and a sense of almost melancholy depth to offset the cutesy-weirdness of the characters. i haven’t been kept off-balance so much by a film in a long time–so many scenes felt like they could go in a number of directions, but none of them felt manipulative or forced. the scene with the hymn-singing is deeply moving, in a way that doesn’t yield to simple analysis. i think it encapsulates the film’s elliptical approach to the question of the (un)knowability of people, their ability or failure to connect based on it, and the attraction, love and hate that results.

    the performances were all great, but i actually liked mckenzie’s the least–it seemed the most familiar. amy adams is dynamite.

    oh, the painter reminded me of mike, with his obsession with large fire-shooting penises and the civil war, and his love of fruit baskets. mike is less anti-semitic though. (i think i’ve met the brother mike refers to–as i recall, he drinks more beer than johnny.)

  6. I liked this film a lot as well. I chuckled, Mike, when I read the section about Johnny on your post. I thought your reading was more touching than the actual character. I liked the film for most of the reasons that have already been pointed out, so I’ll just express some questions I had while watching the movie. From the moment Madeline and George reach the house, Madeline is pretty much left alone with the family. I found this very strange. Does it show that Medeline and George’s relationship doesn’t quite work in this setting? They are certainly together in the bedroom but that’s about it. My second question has to do with what
    Giovanna said, that there is a lot of touching in the movie. I found the intimacy that Madeline presumes to be, again, strange and the same with the intimacy between George and Ashley. Maybe I’m seeking an explanation when there is none but I did wonder about these things.

  7. hey, sun hee. nice to meet you.

    i agree with your finding all the intimacy between the, well, wrong people a little bit strange. since i found this film interesting but not great, i’m totally willing to chalk it all up to cinematic lack of focus. like a slightly misfired, slightly blurry student paper, unable to stick close to the thesis, in love with its own detours and unable to let them go.

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