- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

What’s the old saw: You can take the boy out of the red state, but you can’t take the red state out of the boy? Oh, right; that’s the new saw. But in his wonderfully affecting, soulful and funny first feature, “Junebug,” music-video director and native North Carolinian Phil Morrison softens the edges of our media-driven culture wedge, dismantling caricatures as deftly as he seems to confirm them.

Just who are those bumpkins whom our metro overlords blame for the re-election of George W. Bush? Are they anything like the Johnstens of Winston-Salem, the quietly dysfunctional middle-class family so intimately monitored in the cramped confines of “Junebug”?

Mr. Morrison, working from a sharply written script from Winston-Salem native Angus MacLachlan, begins the movie in Chicago, where the Johnstens’ prodigal son of sorts, George (dashing Alessandro Nivola), has ascended into the professional class and met a gorgeous, worldly, impossibly thin art gallery owner named Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz). The two fall head over heels and marry in a week.

So it’s back to Carolina to…not meet the parents. Rather, the new couple road-trips to Winston-Salem primarily to court a slightly deranged local artist (Frank Hoyt Taylor) whose paintings Madeleine hopes to procure. The near brushoff is not lost on the Johnstens.

There’s unflappable Eugene (Scott Wilson); saucy matriarch Peg (Celia Weston); and scruffy Johnny (“The O.C.’s” Benjamin McKenzie), who, along with far-along pregnant young wife Ashley (Amy Adams), still lives under his parents’ roof.



The Johnstens have perfected the art of letting resentments, jealousies and anxieties fester. Eugene skulks to his basement hobby of woodworking whenever trouble arises. Johnny broods with rage and feelings of inadequacy. Peg weeps alone.

And George is…well, Mr. Morrison and Mr. MacLachlan don’t let on too much about George. He’s the unknowable quantity of the movie. It’s never specified what he does for a living, though he dresses stylishly and is seen carrying a New York Times, which, in these parts, is a lifestyle prop. What’s clear is that he can do no wrong in his mother’s eyes and, perhaps for that reason, is on just the wrong side of smug.

Rudely, he leaves his new bride all but alone when they finally make their way to George’s childhood home (whose every nook you will get to know well) in a not-quite-rural suburb of Winston-Salem (photographed affectionately by Peter Donahue).

Watching the Johnstens behold — and watching a girlishly infatuated Ashley anticipate the arrival of — Madeleine is why movies get made; their initial meeting is dryly, pricelessly funny, with Madeleine speaking in a posh accent and bestowing pairs of continental kisses on each of her (bemused) new hosts.

Miss Adams is, at times, in actorly overdrive, but her portrayal of Ashley — a guileless, giddy young soul whose fears, ambitions and curiosities are circumscribed by her station — is the most winning thing about “Junebug” and will almost certainly generate Oscar buzz.

Miss Davidtz’s interaction with Miss Adams is also a thing of understated beauty. A stranger in every way save for the ring on her finger, Madeleine cannot avoid condescending to the Johnstens. Her offer to help tutor Johnny, who is preparing to take a high school equivalency exam, is vulgarly mistaken for sexual overture.

She is flatly mistrusted by Peg from the first peck on the cheeks. Yet perhaps because neither of them is a Johnsten, Madeleine and Ashley forge a genuine bond — something she may well lack with her husband, despite their obviously healthy sexual compatibility.

Watch, in one of “Junebug’s” earthiest scenes (filmed in a Baptist church-hall grange with a charming group of extras), as Madeleine is at first surprised and then gradually delighted to learn that her husband is a star singer of church hymns. It’s the look of two countries learning to appreciate each other.

***

TITLE: “Junebug”

RATING: R (Profanity; sexual content; brief nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Phil Morrison. Produced by Mindy Goldberg and Mike S. Ryan. Written by Angus MacLachlan. Cinematography by Peter Donahue. Score by Yo La Tengo.

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.

com/junebug

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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