There are two women vying for George's (Alessandro Nivola) soul in the lyrical Southern drama Junebug.
One is George's wife, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a cosmopolitan beauty who runs a high profile "outsider" art gallery in Chicago.
The other is George's mama, Peg (Celia Weston), a thick-around-the-middle, nicotine-addicted, no-nonsense Southern matriarch who rules her slice of North Carolina with quiet assurance. And fans of Tennessee Williams and "The Sopranos" surely know that a mama is a powerful thing.
A reckoning with both mama and the Southern institution of family define newlyweds George and Madeleine's trip southward. They drive from Chicago to court iconoclastic folk artist David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), who hails from the same North Carolina town where George grew up, but they find that the eccentricities of the region are not confined to its visionary artists.
Opening images of a sampling of older white men yodeling their hearts out tells you immediately that Junebug takes place in a foreign country known as the American South. That mix of surreal quirkiness and heartfelt vernacular pretty much sums up Junebug's homespun appeal.
Junebug articulates the peculiar features of the South, which come into delicious focus when viewed by an outsider like Madeleine, who marvels at everything from a pregnant belle with an itch to drink nail polish to the relentlessly pursued Henry Darger-style folk artist who paints slaves and Civil War generals with pine tree-size erections.
Junebug is not merely a battle of wills between Madeleine and Peg, though. The film is also about the undeniable differences that still persist between North and South despite all assurances that regionalism is disappearing. Natives will find amusement and a subtle truthfulness in the warm and fuzzy picture of Southern life presented in Junebug. The film captures the twofold nature to Southern community and family -- of being simultaneously comforted and suffocated by the familiar.
Though a world traveler and an undoubted habitué of folk art's countrified byways, Madeleine stumbles in the midst of her new kinfolk. She sweet talks and romances her new family much in the way she uses her sex appeal to create a bond with David, and George's family bristles at her chummy, manipulative tactics.
The local "primitives" prove far cagier and, in first-time director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan's hands, far more substantive and grounded than they first appear. Volumes are spoken, for instance, in the way George's seemingly oblivious daddy (another pitch-perfect performance from Atlanta-born Scott Wilson) putters around his basement woodshop far removed but still subtly attentive to family tensions upstairs.
When a crisis erupts in the family, a critical test of just what Madeleine values in life proves that very point. A family that seems to operate at a distance from each other is in fact an intuitive, mutually dependent organism.
The parental nest is currently home to George's grown brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), and his chipper pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams). Sitting at his mama's breakfast table, casting sullen glances at the family action, Johnny has a hard time coping with a life of diminishing returns after his high school glory days. High school sweetheart Ashley is convinced that she can crack her husband's depression when she hands him his first child.
An outrageously self-willed slice of Southern womanhood reminiscent of Renée Zellweger's feisty turn in Cold Mountain, Ashley's hellbent desire for normalcy is a resoundingly humble, honest parallel to Madeleine's ambition to win her oddball artist David away from a rival New York gallery.
By the end of Junebug, characters keep their folksy woodcarvings and their mutual dependency to themselves, refusing to go under Madeleine's big city microscope. That streak of proud defiance is a sight to behold and a profound lesson in how difference can be a good thing.
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