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Crossing the line 

North meets South in N.C. native Phil Morrison's fine feature debut

George: It means something.
Madeleine: What?
George: Family.

Not that it needs yet another superlative added to its glittering résumé, but Phil Morrison's Junebug strikes me as the most significant North Carolina art film yet made. I use that term very deliberately. I don't mean "art film made in North Carolina," such as David Lynch's Blue Velvet. And I'm excluding North Carolina nonfiction films like Ross McElwee's, in order to keep to a more traditional definition of art film. Morrison's penetrating comedy-drama is, in fact, something almost sui generis: a brilliantly executed film whose art not only comes from North Carolina, but also concerns the state's culture and, implicitly, the connection between North Carolina and art of various sorts, cinematic definitely included. Indeed, part of its achievement lies in exploring the possible meanings and conundrums of the phrase "North Carolina art film."

Junebug debuted at January's Sundance Film Festival, where it was hailed--along with Tim Kirkman's Loggerheads (another N.C. production) and Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow and Ira Sachs' Forty Shades of Blue (both from Memphis)--as representing a new kind of indie Southern dramatic film, one that offers an insider's view of the region and its culture. A few weeks back, when Morrison's film went into release in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, it was greeted by an avalanche of rave reviews. Now, with its opening this week in several N.C. cities, it crosses another crucial threshold: presenting its vision of North Carolina on home ground.

What will North Carolinians think of Junebug's North Carolina? Perhaps the first reply to that is: depends on which North Carolinians you're talking about. After all, the potential audience for a North Carolina art film will inevitably divide between those who identify most naturally and fervently with "North Carolina" (define it as you will) and those more comfortable in a cultural space aptly symbolized by the "art film" (ditto). Which side of this imaginary fence do you live on?

In a way, the film is about that very divide. In its brief prelude, set in a hip Chicago art gallery that deals in outsider art (think UFOs and Elvis, in crayon), attractive, 30ish gallery owner Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) lays eyes on a handsome guy with a devilish twinkle in his eye, name of George (Alessandro Nivola). When the gallery's empty some time later, and they're locked in passionate embrace, she asks in breathless wonderment where he came from. He replies, grinning, "Pfafftown, North Carolina."

Six months later, the two have already been married for going on five months, and Madeleine's in hot professional pursuit of an eccentric N.C. outsider artist named David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor). Told she would help her case by visiting Wark--who specializes in visionary landscapes populated by black slaves and Confederate generals, all endowed with super-sized penises--she makes what appears to be her first trip down South. It seems almost an afterthought that, after her tentative first meeting with the artist, she and George pop over to see his family.

The Johnstons so far have not met their eldest son's not-so-recent bride, a small fact that says lots about the distance George keeps between himself and his upbringing. The family he and Madeleine encounter, in an archetypal red-brick ranch-style home somewhere in the vicinity of Winston-Salem, is composed of an older and a younger couple residing together in what's evidently a state of stoic, slightly awkward necessity. That is, George's puttering, diffident dad Eugene (Scott Wilson) and hard-edged, assertive mom Peg (Celia Weston) are sharing their space with their younger son, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), and his very pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams). The expectant couple is a study in contrasts. While Ashley's all wide-eyed, optimistic ebullience, Johnny--one of those guys for whom life peaks in high school--appears angry about everything: his blue-collar job, his temporarily curtailed sex life, the prospect of parenthood, his golden-boy older bro.

The emotional volatility of this situation, and its particular local coloration, are illustrated by something that happens moments after the Chicago couple arrives. Ashley, who seems to have decided that cosmopolitan Madeleine will be her salvation from the tension enveloping her marriage, is excitedly leading her new sister-in-law from the carport into the house when Madeleine accidentally knocks one of three knickknacks carved by Eugene from the wall and breaks it. Aware that her judgmental mother-in-law is steps away, Ashley instantly claims responsibility for the damage, even as Madeleine weakly tries to assert the truth.

In this fleeting fib is an X-ray of various crucial factors in the Johnston family dynamic: Eugene's retreat into his workshop; Peg's readiness to disparage the woman who's claimed her George; Ashley's anxious hope that Madeleine's appearance will somehow lift the cloud that Johnny's dark moods have cast over the household; even George's seemingly deliberate absence from the conflicts just named. Yet only North Carolinians, I would guess, will get a slight frisson of significance from the fact that the knickknack Madeleine breaks is a carved and painted cardinal.

That's typical of the film's way with local meaning: It's so subtle, so much a matter of detail and nuance, that outsiders won't know they're missing something that North Carolinians may find richly resonant. In fact, though, perhaps only North Carolinians will be able to fully appreciate how much of this film's achievement lies in a combination of almost ethnographic exactitude and truly poetic evocativeness. In certain moments that recall the work of Abbas Kiarostami or Yasujiro Ozu, Morrison lets his camera linger contemplatively on a landscape or an empty room; if you happen to hail from these parts, you realize you know these spaces and the people who inhabit them in a deep, soul-connected way. (Kudos to the brilliant camerawork of Peter Donahue and production design of Winston-Salemite David Doernberg, who did a similarly terrific job recently on the design of Todd Solondz's Palindromes.)

Junebug is the product of a longtime friendship and collaboration between Morrison, a Winston-Salem native who's lived in New York since college, and playwright Angus MacLachlan, who still calls Winston-Salem home. (Full disclosure: I've known Morrison and MacLachlan for many years, and am thanked in June-bug's credits.) Of MacLachlan's superb script--which places Junebug firmly in Southern literary/dramatic tradition--one noteworthy feature is the centrality and dominance granted the female characters. Compared to retiring Eugene, recessive George and infantile Johnny, the women here are all vital people who, in their different ways, fully engage with the worlds they inhabit, Peg ruling over her household like a cold-eyed monarch, Ashley and Madeleine evolving a complex friendship that reflects their separate, discreetly pursued agendas. And throughout, as Ashley's huge belly emphasizes, there's the sense that these women's power is connected to their fecundity. (This is where Junebug intersects with McElwee's Sherman's March and Time Indefinite: All seem to belong to a distinct subgenre--call it gynocentric N.C. cinema.)

Aside from this male/female imbalance, however, much of Junebug's human drama seems to reflect a number of opposing factors held in careful balance. If (following the formulation offered at the beginning of this review) we regard Peg, Eugene, Ashley and Johnny as the "North Carolina" component of this fictional universe, and George and Madeleine as representing the "art (film)" realm, the movie obviously wants us to see the two sides as mirror images of each other. Neither side is privileged dramatically, neither disparaged. They each have their beauties and strengths, each their faults and weaknesses. If, together, they're understood as offering a composite picture of red-state and blue-state America (as the film's ads suggest), that image has the inexorable symmetry of a bi-colored Rorschach blot.

This being the South, many of the two sides' key differences are charted along lines of sex and religion. Since Junebug itself emerges from the world of the art film, it is deliberately frank on the former subject, and with genuine dramatic purpose. It wants us to see the sexual frustration at the center of Ashley and Johnny's current disconnect. It also makes plain the carnal avidity that both partly explains George and Madeleine's hasty marriage and draws into question its potential longevity: Are these two using sexual abandon in place of other forms of communication? Will they stay together once the flames of passion begin to cool?

As for religion, it's as integral to the Johnstons' world as it is alien (or merely an aestheticized relic) in George and Madeleine's. Yet once the Chicago couple enters the Jesus-friendly realm of North Carolina, things begin to change. In one of the film's most beautiful and startling scenes, the whole family attends a church supper where the preacher invites George to sing a hymn with two other men. When he gets up and launches into the gorgeous a cappella song, the look of wonderment on Madeleine's face makes you realize this is a side of her husband she had no idea existed. And that dawning knowledge is a far cry from the carnal sort.

What Madeleine sees here, we sense, is not only an unsuspected spiritual component in her husband, but also the extent to which he is a product of, and still very similar to, the family he has spent years distancing himself from. Ultimately, family is not only the central issue in Junebug, it's where "North Carolina" (in the deepest sense) finally trumps the "art (film)" world. Because when, late in the story, one character chooses art and career over the bonds of family, we can't help but understand that this choice is, very crucially and fundamentally, the wrong one. Here, all relativity and artful symmetries fall away, and the elemental truths of blood and belonging are seen in a hard, clear light.

Due to its great richness and subtlety, Junebug really deserves to be seen more than once. And one thing I can promise you: No matter how many movies you see between now and New Year's, you won't find a more brilliant ensemble than the one at work here. Morrison's expertise with actors is little short of uncanny, and it endows Junebug with a set of performances that are uniformly terrific. Different viewers, I've found, have different favorites, ranging from Nivola's charismatic George and McKenzie's explosive Johnny to Weston's crusty Peg. For me, it's hard to imagine the film without the grace and elegance of Davidtz's Madeleine. And there's pure revelation in the work of Amy Adams (which won Sundance's acting prize), whose funny, open-hearted, buoyantly naive Ashley is simply an astonishing creation.

These wonderful performances help put the art in Junebug, which itself not only provides a new definition of "North Carolina art film" but also provides the benchmark against which all future claimants to that title will be measured.


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