Junebug is a TV movie for people who don’t watch TV. Its setting, its premise and its characters are all stock only in prospect. In execution, Phil Morrison’s movie is strange because no-one acts like they’re acting, or that there is a dramatic structure to their travails. This is a movie about a man from North Carolina taking his big city wife to meet her backwoods in-laws. We know from lengthy experience how things should pan out: an awkward beginning leading to an inevitable mutual acceptance, punctuated at intervals by laughter and tears. But things do not conform to expectation. The awkward beginning never ends. This is life.
Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz meet at an auction and marry a week later. They do not auger well for the movie. Nivola is as he always is, pleased with himself, picturing you watching him. Davidtz looks like a dozen other actresses who could have played this role, thin and uninviting. They are a power-couple in the Chicago art-world. Davidtz has heard about an outsider-artist (read: crazy person) living near Nivola’s home town who she would like to exhibit. She decides to visit the artist in person and to drop-in on Nivola’s family. This will be the first time the in-laws have met their new relative. Neither of the couple seems concerned.
If Phil Morrison were a different director, Junebug could easily have been Sweet Home Alabama. Everything seems in place from that set-up for a comedy of manners where Davidtz will offend small-town sensibilities in a variety of predictable ways. The movie seems primed to be a critique of speed-dial consumerism and a paean to neighbourliness. But from the moment the couple arrive, Morrison jilts audience empathy – not by making Embeth Davidtz’s behaviour something other than wrong, but by refusing to side with those who take offence. That’s the kicker. His characters are not written to learn lessons or teach us how to behave – they are written from life. A comedy of manners depends on writing from a pre-determined point of view. Phil Morrison’s approach is to let his audience cast the first stone. We may judge, but the movie won’t coddle us by letting on who’s right or wrong in any situation. Right or wrong aren’t even terms I think the director would use. He is interested in people – not people’s mistakes or how they learn from them, but how people live unselfconsciously, knowing only their own side.
A lot has been written about Amy Adams performance in this movie and a lot deserves to be written – she is luminous. Ashley Johnsten, as played by Adams, is a young wife and expectant mother incapable of ill-feeling. That she isn’t insufferable is to Adams lasting credit. Being good on screen is no easy task. Goodness is like sugar in movies and it’s easy to indulge. Adams restraint is doubly admirable given that she is playing good and pregnant. To think of Julia Roberts playing the role is to picture a reprise of Steel Magnolias. Adams succeeds because she makes Ashley into someone whose goodness is rooted in something deeper than the fact that she’s a nice person. Like the rest of Junebug, she conveys a sense of the life which has happened before the few days experience chronicled in the movie. Ashley is a Christian from a small town in North Carolina. She is not good out of happenstance.
When Ashley says to her bottled-up, frustrated young husband, “God loves you just the way you are. But he loves you too much to let you stay that way” – the line and the way it’s spoken sum up the movie. Where it could be crass, it is graceful. Where it could be shallow, its convictions run deep. Junebug is about family and how a family reacts to outsiders. It knows in its bones that people don’t like being seen in a fresh light. Everyone in the movie will change because of what happens in the plot, but we don’t see those changes happen (for the most part) because they change only how these people think about the way they act.
Anyone who knows family knows the effort involved in that shift.