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JUNEBUG (R) (2005)

Sony Pictures Classics

Official Site

Director: Phil Morrison

Producers: Mindy Goldberg, Mike S. Ryan

Written by: Angus MacLachlan

Cast: Embeth Davidtz, Amy Adams, Benjamin McKenzie, Alessandro Nivola, Frank Hoyt Taylor, Celia Weston, Scott Wilson


Though it’s nice to see someone besides David Gordon Green making movies about the South, Junebug’s cast of caricatures is, in its own way, as weird and baffling as Napoleon Dynamite’s. Some claim that Napoleon is actually a hilarious, acute satire/portrait of contemporary Mormon life, but to a lot of us it’s just inexplicable. So too Junebug, which throws one well-meaning liberal humanist British chick (Davidtz) into a hothouse of Southern anti-hospitality.

Davidtz specializes in outsider art, so when it becomes necessary to woo one Southern artist in person, she takes her husband of six months (Nivola, utterly blank) along so that she can finally meet his family. The demented artist she’s pursuing (Frank Hoyt Taylor, a rare modern-day character actor specializing in deep-fried Southern weirdness) is about half-an-hour away from the house where Nivola’s family—fierce matriarch (Weston), mild-mannered father (Wilson), pregnant daughter (Adams) and disgruntled fiancé (McKenzie)—barely get along. Davidtz’s presence—struggling from the first moment to be ingratiating and sweet, while coming across as insufferably patronizing—only exacerbates things.

Weston has a barely concealed animosity towards Davidtz from the start, and actually gets around to saying “She’s too pretty, she’s too smart; that’s a deadly combination” towards the middle. Adams (in a fiercely discomfiting performance) worships Davidtz and abases herself before her at all times. Etc. The house is a free-floating arena of discomfort, and the first half of the film is an inexplicable but largely entertaining black-tempered comedy (especially from the enjoyably surly McKenzie). But even those modest pleasures evaporate in a second half filled with dramatic confrontations and lots of short-story-esque symbolism; the leap to relevance doesn’t work.

Morrison’s approach is weirdly theatrical, staging tense confrontations in cramped rooms while people glance longingly to a place just off-screen. Other times the camera travels through empty roads and rooms, and Morrison removes all sound (ambient and otherwise). Generally he sucks the life out of the proceedings, but it’s hard to understand why anyone would really act this way at all, so it doesn’t matter to begin with. Between its sniveling, unlikeable heroine and the not-particularly feisty types she faces off with, Junebug is a bewildering journey to nowhere in particular; it feels as out-of-place and annoying passive as its protagonist.

—Vadim Rizov

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