I first saw Phil Morrison's debut feature at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2005 and I am pleased to see it returning to our screens in a brand new DVD release. That year it was the standout feature I saw over those two weeks.
The film is an insightful look at the culture clash that takes place when a young brother from the south brings his new fiancée (a Yankee) home for the first time to meet the family.
It begins with men hollering, a former communication tool in North Carolina were the film is set and it focuses on the role communication – verbal and non-verbal – has on a family as the eldest son, George (Nivola), returns home for a few days with his new wife, Madeline (Davidtz), of six months. At his family home we have Eugene and Peg, his parents whose conversations are led by Peg and leave Eugene restricted to monosyllabic answers. Johnny (McKenzie), the youngest son, is a rebellious sort who hates being spoken to or down to and prefers actions (later he throws a wrench at George) and Ashley (Adams), Johnny’s wife, who it heavily pregnant, talkative and inquisitive.
What follows is a view of what priorities you are meant to have; when Ashley does go into labour Madeline (an art gallery owner) decides to pursue a client while George thinks that family should come first, he tells her this and ultimately this puts a wedge in the relationship.
George (Alessandro Nivola) and Madeline (Embeth Davidtz) head for home while she recruits a new artist for the New York gallery she works for. While the couple are happy together, the household they start to frequent is one of quietness that this new life opens up new doors. George's parents - Eugene and Peg - are simple folk; their conversations are led by Peg with Eugene's replies limited to monosyllabic answers. Johnny (Ben McKenzie) is the rebel of the family who would like to be as smart as George but suffers from being the youngest of the family and living in George's perpetual shadow and has the added weight of living with his pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams) who is immediately uplifted by Madeline's arrival as she offers her a view of the world up north, a world of glamour and culture. Ashley is awestruck but in a big sister sort of way.
It is important to note the role of communication in this film, the different sorts it employs and what sort of emotions it conveys. This is set around two set pieces - the church social and the baby shower. At the church social, the larger community get to see the returning George and have Madeline shown off. It also provides Madeline the opportunity to see a different side of George she has not yet seen, when he sings a solo of a hymn. The camera scans the room, the church taking in the solo humbly and then the camera holds on Madeline, who herself is now awestruck at this secret. It is a softer side of George absent from the instant attractiveness we see at the film's beginning. At the baby shower, the feelings of disdain Johnny has been building up surface which itself leads to Ashley's premature pregnancy.
The film does not overreach for sentimentality and does not portray the South in stereotypical terms which is a credit to Morrison and this fine group of actors he has employed. Nivola has never gone to these lengths before and it suits him, he broods at time and has a real presence. Davidtz plays the cultural outsider very well and rather than making her the intellectual, at times her intelligence can be rude in comparison to the simpler south (which itself might sound racist).
However, the film belongs to Amy Adams, who was rightly Oscar nominated for her role. Her bright-eyed and talkative role in another film might have been annoying, but in fact is endearing as she plays Ashley as the heartbroken sole who is forced to be with her childhood sweetheart, but like all the other characters yearns to escape at times but is forced to stay. In other years, Adams might have won the Oscar (like Marcia Gay Harden or Mercedes Rheul) but instead let us be grateful that such a performance was captured by such an unknown with a great future.
At the end for the first time we are left with ambiguity which is odd for the films conclusion, but appropriately it leaves a couple in silence with one having asked a question still awaiting a response, as they 'escape' but do they really want to. A well written screenplay that is a joy when you think of it in hindsight and is recommended to all.
Throughout the film we have all types of communication and the effect it has on relationships and community; communication through faith, prayer, food – especially food as it governs when family spend time together (‘What time is dinner?’).
In terms of communication, Ashley is the most appealing character which is odd considering if she was in another film she would be laughed at and not with, but because she is the only character who speaks openly to all we find her endearing as well as innocence. When she is in hospital after surgery, George comforts her and usually the person who has suffered would remain quiet while George would console her with positive thoughts. But Ashley remains the constant talker while George listens and just being the receiver and someone to listen is what Ashley wants, unlike Johnny who married Ashley because she got pregnant (it appears, but then we are not told that). Nivola in this scene is brilliant he just listens and broods on the screen, giving great strength to a scene that easily could have subsided into hysterics but it helps if only one person asks and answers. Nivola hugs her, kisses her on the forehead and leaves Ashley happy. As he returns home he confronts Johnny, again he does not speak and Johnny’s violent jealousy of George erupts in the wrench being thrown, it is the only violent act of the film but speaks loudest.
It uses a melodic soundtrack that does not have non-diegetic music to fill out scenes and this renders the film a sort of natural space unlike other American independent films, but then again most American films do not have the type of outstanding performance we receive from Amy Adams.
Junebug is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray (£13.27RRP) by Eureka! Films, the special features contain a full length audio commentary from the stars Amy Adams and Embeth Davidtz; Amy Adams interview and Q&A session in London from March 2006; ten deleted scenes; behind the scenes documentaries.