Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Review of "Junebug"

I went to see Junebug last night at the Carolina, suspicious because the only review I'd seen was local. Our hometown papers predictably heap fulsome praise on "our" movies - this one qualifies since director Phil Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan are Winston-Salem natives. The local fare has, then, often disappointed me - but not this time.

In fact even though the glowing review by a famously and preposterously pompous local reviewer whom I have detested for years made me want to dislike the movie, I just couldn't. It is beautiful to look at, and the screenplay is intelligent and beautiful; funny and sad; woven of natural, unselfconscious moments.

The acting is transparent (highest praise); the characters are believable, charismatic, full of energy. I came away loving them all, even the grouchy, difficult ones. That's my definition of a movie with heart!

It opens at a Chicago art gallery auction of naive "outsider" art. There's good money to be made off these "outsiders" - their paintings send city-slicker "insiders" into embarrassing paroxysms of adoration.

At this auction, beautiful people Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) - a sophisticated outsider herself, having been raised in Africa and other exotic places - and George (Alessandro Nivola) - raised a North Carolina boy, and what was he was doing at that auction, anyway? - fall in love; they soon marry.

Six months later, Madeleine is eager to contract with one particularly peculiar naive artist, David Wark (Frank Hoyt), who has an oddly garbled "down east" accent and who paints endless religious visions of Confederate soldiers and Negroes with white faces (because Wark has "never known a black man") with huge penises shooting blood and whatever at each other. The gleefully grotesque paintings made me laugh out loud. I've seen art like this in museums down here...

Finding that Wark, coincidentally, lives near George's home, the newlyweds drive down from Chicago. Madeleine can curry and woo the awful old codger and her husband's family as well.

Any of us who have felt the outsider can identify with Madeleine, self-conscious and bravely sweet as she is dropped among the kinfolk and left beached by George, who - becoming a rather blank slate - withdraws, perhaps grappling with his own troubled memories, leaving her to fend for herself. The grumbling mother doesn't like her, the father is too retiring and the brother too angry and confused to be any help; only the brother's wife, pregnant with a baby she intends to call Junebug, is smitten with Madeleine and loves her lavishly and garrulously at first sight.

Though Peg (Celia Weston), the suspicious and dissatisfied mom, and Eugene (Scott Wilson), the laconic dad, have been criticized as stereotypes, they were so like some remembered relatives of my own that I shuddered in remembrance. I even had a cousin like George's young brother, the bitter, impulsive, violent, frustrated Johnny (Ben McKenzie). Inarticulate and infantilized, Johnny brutally botches his encounters with everyone, particularly Ashley (Amy Adams), his innocent and adorable "firecracker" of a wife; she's become his scapegoat, unfairly punished for his failures and disappointments.

I worried at first that naive, effervescent Ashley was being set up, but she actually turns out to be queen of this movie - ingenuous, loving, optimistic, bursting with a beautiful spirit despite her many sorrows.

So - I laughed, snorted, whispered to my friend (film being of course an interactive medium, right?), sighed over sudden tendernesses quietly displayed, and cried when George - at the urging of his young pastor and with the help of a big ruddy tenor and a sallow undernourished bass - sang a showstoppingly beautiful a cappella hymn about going home.

Seven hours later I'm haunted by childhood memories of being an outsider among my country cousins, remembering my mother crying in my grandparents' farmhouse. She felt shut out by my father's tribe. While I'm not convinced the daughters and daughters-in-law were truly shutting her out, they did emit a stunned awareness of her otherness. They had never been allowed to graduate from high school, and their mother, my grandmother, left school after fourth grade to roll cigars in a local factory. In contrast, my mother was literally an old-school Yankee, having gone to Wellesley, and her mother, my other grandmother, to Smith.

My dad had been the only sibling to leave York County and was revered and resented variously by the people he had left behind. His homecomings, with us oddballs in tow, were awkward. He would determinedly, obliviously, fall back into playing pinochle with the menfolk while the womenfolk cleaned the kitchen. Meanwhile, my brothers watched TV, I read old Sears Roebuck catalogs and stacks of Readers' Digests and listened to the happy companionship around me, and my mother retreated into miserable, waspish petulance.

Years later one of my aunts kindly suggested: "I believe your mother was a bit nervous." Nervousness in their lexicon is anything from a bit of depression to certifiable lunacy.

So anyway, for me maybe the movie was a bit close to the bone. Worth it, though. Go see it and tell me what you think!

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At 12:04 PM, Anonymous Your Friend said...

Very good review, Pratie.
I myself am starting to see several of the characters as emblematic of different ways of being an artist, a filmmaker in particular. Madeleine, the exclusively commercial orientation. Wark, on or over the creative line between spirituality and psychosis. The dad, the passive technician. THe mom, frantically trying to control and direct things. Ashley, wide eyed sponge. Johnny, art as unreflective emotional outburst. However you see the movie, it's provocative and rich with latent meaning. thanks for your review...


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