When Art dealer Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz, never better) travels to the South meet an Artist about his weird drawings, she decides to visit her husband’s family whilst she’s at it. He hasn’t been in correspondence with them for over three years, and why that is is left unrevealed. She meets them – her mother in law (Celia Weston), father in law (Scott Wilson), brother in law (Benjamin Mckenzie), and his perky, pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams). Only Ashley extends a warm welcome, as everyone else pronounces Madeleine too clever, too pretty and too successful to be considered family. Her visit brings some home truths that the family had been putting off. Or, waiting for someone to blame on.
There is something about Junebug that will surprise everyone. It’s not the weird opening sequence, where some men randomly shout into space. It’s not the surprise of seeing Schindler’s List’s Embeth Davitz finally get a film role that she deserves. No, it is that you are actually impressed by the acting from The O.C.’s Benjamin Mckenzie (shortened to “Ben” here). As Johnny, he is a definite sourpuss, rude, inattentive to his loving wife, but perhaps, as the film hints, just using his rude exterior to hide a feeling of failure inside. Ben Mackenzie makes his character surprisingly well layered, revelling in the quietly sad scenes – he tries to tape a show about meercats for his wife but can’t, and ends up taking it out on her. As his very different brother, Alessandro Nivola is as good, in his unaffected, cheerfulness. Embeth Davidtz shines too, in a different role as Madeleine, a woman trying constantly to make a good impression, but always failing. Her character is given extra depth during her many scenes during Amy Adams, especially in their snug little session over her nails. But the film belongs to Amy Adams, the actress that brought the film out of obscurity with her Oscar nomination. In Ashley, we find liveliness, humour and a soul not to be put out easily. Her love for her under-achieving husband is touching and each time he knocks her back, she fights back playfully, covering up her own insecurities, which are all revealed in her tragic hospital scene. It was a performance that could have easily been annoying or repetitive, but Ashley’s spirit is so free, Adams’ performance perfectly heartfelt.
Not much happens plot-wise, but Junebug is one of those films that are all the better for it. Director Phil Morrison has expertly created a story, with real characters, out of the petty everyday things. Although scenes with the Artist feel a little underdone, though they also play a part in showing the importance of family. Madeleine’s visit proves to be unsuccessful not only because she is disliked by her husband’s family, but because her actions clumsily reveal things about them, things that they’d rather not admit to. That Junebug never properly reaches a conclusion merely adds to the film’s sophistication, but on my part, I probably would have liked to see what happens if Madeline and George went back a year later. Because though Ashley had big dreams, the sad fact is that they probably all would have gone unfulfilled. Everyone has aspirations, and some people can stand in the way of others.