Junebug Review

Phil Morrison’s debut feature is another American small-town indie comedy that the Sundance Festival seems to specialise in uncovering and bringing to a wider audience. Junebug has all the familiar hallmarks of US independent filmmaking, presenting the outlandish characteristics of the inhabitants of provincial US towns, but finding an endearing quality in their habits and behaviour. Junebug doesn’t really find anything new or original in its look at the customs and way of life in the US southern States, but it has a fine screenplay that sparkles with witty observations and strong performances from a strong cast, including an Oscar-nominated turn from Amy Adams.

Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) runs an art gallery in Chicago, specialising in “outsider art”, naïve art by self-taught local artists. At her gallery she meets and falls in love with George (Alessandro Nivola) in a whirlwind romance. When the opportunity arrives to examine the art of a North Carolina artist her gallery is keen to display - a reclusive eccentric who creates tableaux of the American Civil War - she takes her new husband with her in order to meet her in-laws who live in that part of the American South. She meets George’s parents Peg (Celia Weston) and Eugene Johnsten (Scott Wilson), his brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie) and his pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams). A simple god-fearing family, their roles are defined from birth, like those of generations before them – the women to have babies, stay slim and shop at the mall, the men to provide for the family and keep their head down in front of the TV or in their workshop. As a career-driven, sexually expressive woman who knows her own mind, Madeleine finds herself at odds with the Southern lifestyle, but also discovers much she didn’t know about her new husband.

Junebug sets up a strong culture clash dynamic between its characters, all of whom have very well-defined personalities, and are superbly played by the cast. They are so strongly defined however that there is little that is likely to shift them out of those well worn furrows their lives follow. Even the irrepressible Ashley has her perspective limited by the world around her and can’t even conceive of any other way of living until she meets the exotic Japanese-born, world travelling, educated and cultured Madeleine. It’s a delightful clash of personalities, the script sparkling with clever observations and witty exchanges, often nailing down the characters with a couple of lines of incisive dialogue, pinpointing their personalities, their predicaments, their outlook (or lack of it) and their respective differences. “I believe that can go in the dishwasher” says Peg as an aside about Madeleine’s present of an antique baby spoon at a scarily “normal” gathering of Stepford Wives for Ashley’s Baby Shower - a single situation which tells us a lot about the respective cultural differences between the women.

If that seems too heavy-handed – and in the context of the film I assure you it is not – it is true that the targets are easy ones and Junebug can often be a little bit obvious and predictable in some of its stereotypes. Both the director, debut filmmaker Phil Morrison and screenwriter Angus Maclachlan are local boys working in their own backyard, so the circumstances are undoubtedly accurate and based on real-life characters and incidents. They clearly have a mixture of fondness for these larger-then-life personalities and a sense of being able to laugh at their own quirks and behaviour, but strive too hard to find a more balanced outlook that is a little too respectful and reverential. This is a trap that Jared Hess, in his similarly humorous look at US provincial life in the marvellous Napoleon Dynamite, skilfully avoided by not being afraid to let the outlandish behaviour of his mid-Western characters exist in a closed, hermetic environment and allow their humanity, poignancy - and humour - to rise naturally out of their circumstances. In contrast, Morrison’s film relies rather more on culture clash to soften the harder edges of the characters, ending up being a little too even-handed in its balance of criticism. Hey, if you think these guys are strange, take a look at your own lives, it seems to say.

Setting the provincial Johnsten’s up alongside the cosmopolitan Madeleine then, the inevitable misunderstandings occur and the conflicts are consequently a little too predictable for any original observations to be made. For the Johnsten’s, despite the simplicity and narrowness of outlook, the family is everything and they are protective and caring in their own way. Madeleine, despite her intelligence, culture and freedom, is wrapped up in her work and the pursuit of some particularly ugly and seemingly worthless artwork to the exclusion of the qualities in the people around her – something that is brought out in her failing to see the beauty in Eugene’s own woodwork creations. In between there is George, who is blankly and boringly perfect, able to move with facility between both worlds, unruffled by the crises that affect both sides. This dull middle-line would be representative of the whole film were it not for the character of Ashley – a superb performance by Amy Adams, fully deserving of her Best Supporting Oscar nomination for this - who much more successfully embodies in her character the conflict between personality and upbringing, and gives the film an edge and a sense of humour beyond the otherwise mild satire of the ordinary everyday situations and complications.

Junebug is released in the UK by Eureka. It is released as a 2-disc set in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

Junebug is presented anamorphically in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The image is neither soft nor overly sharp, but nonetheless well defined. Likewise the colours are coolly toned, neither dull nor truly vivid, with skin tones in particular looking not quite natural. Filmed in Super 16mm, this is undoubtedly inherent in the original film negative and it seems to match the content of the film and its indie look and feel rather well. The transfer is quite stable and, on a dual-layer disc, there are no digital artefacts or compression issues. There are very few white dust spots and only one or two little marks. Overall, a very nice transfer with no real issues.

The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The surrounds are not greatly used, the soundtrack being centre-based, only opening up slightly to the front speakers for the music score. The overall tone is slightly on the dull side, and not always clear, with some low background analogue hiss occasionally audible. Dialogue is nonetheless mainly clear, but the occasional word can get lost, particularly with the strong Southern States accents. This wouldn’t be a problem if there were Hard of Hearing Subtitles included, but unfortunately there are none here.

An English language film, there are no subtitles on the DVD and no Hard of Hearing Captions, neither on the film nor the extra features.

The commentary track is provided by the cast members Amy Adams and Embeth Davidtz. It serves as a good behind-the-scenes look at the film, the actresses describing how the director worked on certain scenes, pointing out little observations about the script and characters on screen.

Deleted Scenes (21:24)
Ten time-coded deleted scenes are included. They are almost all from the opening and closing scenes, and their deletion certainly tightens up the main part of the film, although we lose a superb scene of Johnsten “family harmony”, before the arrival of George and Madeleine. The majority of the deleted scenes come from the departure scene at the end of the film, which is clearly over-emphatic and drawn out, but in being cut back it loses a nice “eye-shadow” line.

Behind The Scenes (17:30)
Divided into five sections, this feature shows the set-up of the location, each of the actors speaking in interviews about their character in one particular scene.

Amy Adams Q&A (21:49)
This is a nice informal, chatty interview with the actress at a screening in London. Adams talks about how she prepared for the role of Ashley, looks back on her break into film, and how her experiences differ on the different types of movies she has appeared in.

Casting Sessions
Amy Adams (13:58), and Ben McKenzie (7:17) audition tapes are shown here, performing a couple of scenes. This is a little long and repetitive and not terribly interesting.

Ann Wood
The artwork used in the film is the work of Ann Wood, created specifically for the film. A gallery of the paintings are shown here.

Junebug’s culture clash situation between the narrow-minded traditional family-oriented lifestyle of the southern States of America and the silliness of the single-minded career woman from the big city who doesn’t see the real value in things is a little obvious and a little too well-balanced and even-handed to carry any real satirical weight. The social observations aren’t new, but are well presented in an incisively funny script that allows just as much be said in the placing of two people alongside each other at a dinner table and letting the obvious discomfort speak for itself. More than that however, the performance of an exceptional cast, but most notably from Amy Adams and Celia Weston, give the film a degree of humour, humanity and poignancy beyond its rather obvious domestic situations.

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