September 23, 2005


Directed by Phil Morrison Starring Alessandro Nivola, Benjamin McKenzie and Amy Adams

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

"If you can't run with the big dogs, stay under the porch," a trusted Southern idiom urges. Cannes/Sundance entry Junebug paints a decidedly idiosyncratic portrait of the American South, where historical and cultural stigmas continue to colour people's identities and the stay-under-the-porch resignation is prevalent. The film frames rather familiar themes of awkward family reunion, tense sibling rivalry, culture shock and small-time cul-de-sac hopelessness with an unconventional detachment and illustrates the perspective of each character and the dynamic of every relationship with string-grid precision.

Brit art dealer Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) and her newlywed younger husband George (Alessandro Nivola) travel from Chicago to suburban Winston-Salem, so that she can pursue the work of eccentric local folk artist David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor) and also finally get an opportunity to meet George's estranged family. Wark's Henry Darger-esque outsider artwork suggests that ghosts of slavery and the grey-coat Confederacy still haunt the collective psyche below the Mason-Dixon line. The visit of a Yankee outsider and an expatriate Tar Heel not only disturbs the peace of George's Carolina family, but it also eggs on different manifestations of the Southern inferiority complex amongst its members.

Having escaped to Chicago, George's denial of his roots is evident in his neglecting to invite the family to his wedding and his lapse in religious observances. His younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie of The O.C.) is a high-school dropout who never gets a chance to fulfill his life's potential and resents both the burden of his very pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams) and the success of brother George. Sheltered and callow Ashley follows social expectations without demurrer, but she is in awe of cosmopolitan Madeleine and the worldliness that seems so out of reach for an unsophisticated girl whose favourite pastime appears to be hitting the mall. And perhaps overcompensating for her own insecurity, tetchy and condescending materfamilias Peg (Celia Weston) disapproves of everything that is foreign to her.

The thematic concern of Phil Morrison's feature-length debut recalls I Vitelloni, The Last Picture Show and his North Carolinian contemporary David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls, but the presence of outsiders in Junebug intensifies this despair among the trapped inhabitants of its diminutive borough. Suburban Winston-Salem isn't the prototypical Mayberry, and it provides a curious contrast to the ramshackle rural settings in Green's films. In lieu of a protagonist, viewers can recognize and perhaps even identify with most characters. To its credit, the film never resorts to broad-brush grotesque caricatures (think boxer Maggie's horrendous white-trash family in Million Dollar Baby). Without passing judgment, Junebug allows viewers to look past its characters' personal flaws and gain insight into the ambivalence they have toward their tobacco-road heritage. Even though this plot-driven Southern stew may frustrate viewers' desires for emotional investment, the pot liquor boils to a devastating climax nonetheless.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.