“I think he is a very honest writer in how he portrays his characters, and I think he has a unique sensibility that’s Southern and comes from living in a place like Winston-Salem and going to the School ofthe Arts.” – Dale Pollock (former Dean of School of Filmmaking) on Junebug screenwriter Angus MacLachlan
In Junebug, we have an urban couple Madeline (Embeth Davidtz) and George (Alessandro Nivola). George hales from a small town in North Carolina. Although he the family golden boy, he has distanced himself from them and his southern, suburban roots. Madeline owns a gallery in Chicago that specializes in “outsider art”. They go to North Carolina to try to secure the work of David Wark, a recently discovered outsider artist. It might of interest that Wark’s work in the film was loosely based on the works of real-life outsider artists Henry Darger and Howard Finster. While in North Carolina, Madeline also meets her new husband’s family for the first time. George and Madeline got married a week after they started dating, so it is not surprising that the family didn’t attend (or, apparently, didn’t know of their nuptials six months earlier). George’s family, who we spend most of the film with, is full of characters who are funny because of their realness—this is a family we can all understand. Eugene (Scott Wilson) is George’s dad who prefers to keep his own company in the basement; Peg (Celia Weston) is George’s chain-smoking mom, a true matriarch; Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie) is George’s younger brother, a raw bundle of nerves who never left home; and last but not least there’s Ashley (Amy Adams), Johnny’s wide-eyed and very pregnant wife.
Junebug is ultimately about a classic culture clash within a southern family when their up-and-out son returns with his new, worldly wife. This is not the rural south but the suburban one (the film was shot in Winston-Salem). The film will resonate with anyone who has grown up somewhere they strived to escape from. But this is not a suburban nightmare tale. The message is that you can be happy to have escaped and still feel nostalgic for the people, places, and ideas you left behind. This is the tug-of-war George is experiencing, made very clear in two telling scenes. The first occurs when George and Madeline arrive at his family’s home, Madeline goes in and faces his family alone while he wanders around in the backyard. The second is a scene about mid-way through the film at a church potluck dinner when George is asked to sing a hymn. When he does sing, Madeline looks at him like she’s never seen him before. She seems equally touched and horrified.
This is also a film about marriage—what happens once the shine comes off the newness of the partnership. The question then becomes: what does the couple share? What we are shown of George and Madeline’s relationship is the physical, sexual. There are a number of important conversations which have not happened, like: how do you weight the importance of career and family? It’s not even clear if they have talked about whether they want to have children. Now, though, these issues seem to be bubbling up. On the other hand, Johnny and Ashley have been there for a while. Johnny is sullen and distant, though Ashley is convinced Johnny will come around when their baby is born.
The film’s screenplay is written by Angus MacLachlan and is an adaptation of a play he wrote. Screenwriter MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison are both North Carolina natives. Morrison left NC when he was seventeen to go to NYU and never moved back (he went on to direct commercials and music videos for groups like Yo La Tengo – who do the score for the film). Unlike Morrison, MacLachlan never left NC. MacLachlan and Morrison are almost like our brothers in the film—one couldn’t get far enough away fast enough and the other remained. Perhaps there’s something to the realness we see on the screen.
They have a great sense of the pace and language of the south, which comes through in the film. The film is even-handed in its handling of all its characters. The characters are complicated and all too human. The camera never feels voyeuristic. The people and spaces feel shared more than observed. There are a number of great (small g) scenes. Junebug was a Sundance favorite and went on to sang Amy Adams an Oscar nomination.