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  This debut feature from Phil Morrison is a timely and stylistically quirky comedy/drama which has much to say about the contemporary U.S. cultural divide.   “Junebug” is about the visit of Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicagoan who owns a gallery showcasing “outsider” art, to the boyhood home in North Carolina of her new husband George.   Their relationship is primarily physical; they know virtually nothing about each other’s values.   The new couple stay at George’s parents’ place; also living at the house is George’s younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie of TV’s teen soap opera “The O.C.”), and his very pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams), a wide-eyed innocent given to incessant stream-of-unconsciousness gibber.   A rural idiot savant whose bizarre artworks Madeleine adores happens to live nearby; for Madeleine the main motivation for the trip is to convince him to exhibit at her gallery in Chicago.

The ensuing culture-shock and clash of values between Madeleine and the North Carolinians is the subject of the film, and in mainstream hands this fish-out-of-water scenario could easily have been fodder for a sort of broad sitcom.   Instead, “Junebug” subtly avoids stereotypes, revealing in these ordinary North Carolinians surprising qualities, unsuspected interests, unexpected insights.  

Madeleine does not condescend to the Southerners.   Though occasionally bemused by them, she regards them as equal (albeit curious) specimens.   This is just as well, as their detectors for elitism are exquisitely attuned.   Madeleine speaks with an international, British-sounding cadence which signifies both her otherness and her intelligence, qualities which George’s mother finds especially threatening.   Amusingly, those very same qualities of Madeleine’s compel the simple Ashley to idolize her.

Of the sets of opposites in U.S. culture that the film examines (e.g., North/South, urban/rural, sophisticated/provincial), perhaps the most salient is secular/religious.   There’s a stunning scene at a church dinner in which the pastor cajoles George into singing for the assembled, like he used to.   Up to this point George, with his devilish grin, has seemed definitively worldly.   We’re as stunned as Madeleine when he rises and sings a hymn, utterly sincerely and with great depth of feeling.   Even a rather militant partisan of secularism such as myself can’t help but be moved.   Madeleine’s expression as she watches her new husband sing is priceless and unreadable: it could be horror, or amazement, or wonder at who this guy is that she’s married.   When the assembled bow their heads in prayer, she looks ahead with mouth hanging open, studying them.   She wouldn’t think to participate, not because she objects but because it simply wouldn’t occur to do her to do so.  

Admirably, “Junebug” does not necessarily take a side in the culture war.   As someone who has, I maintain that it’s correct to be distressed at the number of our countrymen and women for whom the Enlightenment apparently never happened.   At the same time, “Junebug” reminds us that it’s worth remembering that we don’t necessarily have them all figured out, and that not all of their values are necessarily distasteful.


- Aug 28, 2005  

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