Friday, April 22, 2011

Junebug (2005) — Family happens

Amy Adams will be the next Lois Lane. I think that's just ... super. The upcoming Superman franchise reboot is a project I'm watching with long-standing interest as a fan of the the big blue Kryptonian in his various media incarnations. And while the notion of Zack Snyder directing it tends to scrunch my eyebrows together in a querulous frown, I'm willing to hold my tongue and see what he comes up with. Frankly, I'm more curious about what the screenplay does at this point. But the notion of Adams playing Lois — alongside Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, and the new Supes Henry Cavill — lifts my hopes mightily.

And yeah, I admit it: I have a big, dumb star-crush on Amy Adams. (After 20 years of Jodie Foster not returning my calls, it's time to move on.) One of the few pleasures of this past Academy Awards year was her nomination for her work in The Fighter. So now I'm giving in to the urge to revisit the movie that (1) introduced me to Adams, (2) still delights me with its blend of sharpness and restraint, and (3) leaves me saying, "I wish I'd made that."

In this favorite from 2005's indie circuit and Top 10ish lists, worldly and urbane newlywed Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) travels from her highbrow Chicago art gallery to meet her in-laws in North Carolina. Her primary objective is to secure an exclusive contract with an "outsider artist" (Frank Hoyt Taylor) producing hallucinogenic folk paintings near her husband George's boyhood home, not far from Winston-Salem, N.C. Like a backwoods William Blake, the dialect-heavy and mentally off-kilter artist exists not entirely on our plane. Admiring his vision of the Battle of Antietam, Madeleine says "I love all the dog heads and computers and scrotums." But she's convinced that he, as her "discovery," is destined to become an art-scene smash.

She married George (Alessandro Nivola) only one week after meeting him at a Chicago art auction, so their side trip to his family home forces the couple to see each other in terms not yet tested in their sexually passionate relationship.

Madeleine blithely cheek-kisses her way through George's rural kin, oblivious to the simple complexities of communication, engagement, and expectations that can make or doom all such encounters. (The film opens, seemingly inexplicably, with shots from a yodeling contest: communication in all its peculiar ambiguities, linguistic and otherwise, is key in Junebug.)

Junebug could have taken that setup and troweled on easy yuks from some Sweet Home Alabama Meets the Fockers bucket, with pickup trucks and guys named Beau or Skeeter. Fortunately, everyone involved here is more knowing, honest, and trusting than that. This is a measuredly comic American South not of Jeff Foxworthy or Larry the Cable Guy, but a suburban Lost in Translation by way of Flannery O'Connor, where folks eating spaghetti hot dish at a church social can more freely reveal themselves than those at a wine-and-cheese soiree in a cosmopolitan art gallery. The cultures don't clash, really, but they do scrape the chrome off each other's fenders.

Unhurried and subdued with a free-floating focus and tone, this is one of those spare, ruminative indies where plot isn't so much a straight line as a collection of small, soft dots. As an ensemble showcase for its acting talent, it's a master class in beautifully written and played understatement.

The family's center of gravity is matriarch Peg (Celia Weston), who regards Madeleine as if George had brought home a being from Alpha Centauri. As George's brother Johnny, Benjamin McKenzie ("The O.C.") bottles the pent up hostility of a high-school dropout bitter in George's shadow and trapped in a too-young marriage with a wife nine months pregnant.

That would be Ashley (Adams), a flighty chatterbox who idolizes sophisticated Madeleine with child-eyed ebullience. The disconnect between Madeleine and George's family (and Madeleine and George) reaches its harshest test when Madeleine must choose between a career-making opportunity and a family crisis involving Ashley.

"I want to know what makes you tick," Ashley says to Madeleine, speaking aloud what might be the film's theme. These are characters whose personal clockworks never will keep a common time, but through carefully paced, often muted moments of showing-not-telling, they do come to hear better how the others tick, even if they still can't quite tell the time by it.

Plenty of glasses have been raised to Adams' ambrosial charm in a funny and achingly tender performance. Sure enough, joy-touched Ashley makes Junebug worthwhile all by herself. Adams really is splendid, delivering one of the year's most enjoyable performances through surprising subtleties and layers, earning every inch of her Sundance special grand jury prize, Indie Spirit Award, and an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress.

That said, another actor also worth calling out from this all-over excellent ensemble is Scott Wilson, who plays George's acutely taciturn father Eugene. Wilson, who began his career as one of the killers in In Cold Blood, makes choices that are the polar opposite of Adams' giddy, uninhibited Ashley. Eugene's immobile, pinched-lipped, hands-in-pockets quietude gives us a stealth performance that's more impressive than any action hero. (On the DVD there's a lovely deleted scene between Peg and Eugene that, in my opinion, should have made the theatrical cut as it provides a surprising reveal of the emotional yolk Wilson's character hides within that private, taciturn shell.)

Director Phil Morrison's first feature returned him to Winston-Salem, where he was born. With Junebug he displays a confidence made sharper by his monkish restraint. He brings to the material an eye for resonant metaphors and ambiguities — lingering shots of empty rooms or birch woods at night come across as artful and expressive without overstaying their welcome to become merely "artsy" and "symbolic" — as well as, thank you, a knack for elaborating the idiosyncrasies of this fragile family and where they live without coming off classist or mocking. (Those of us raised in this flavor of the South likely recognize, and appreciate, the film's delicate authenticities more than viewers from elsewhere.)

Meanwhile, playwright-turned-screenwriter Angus MacLachlan, a graduate from the North Carolina School of the Arts drama program, displays a tuning-fork ear for the dialogue.

Together they sculpted these characters out of native clay, then with his actors Morrison pared them down, down, down to an atomized level of judiciously exposed revelations.

The result is a concatenation of scenes that place much of the telling in their ellipses. For some viewers, this less-is-more approach will leave too much information offscreen. George, for instance, is so far in the background that he abandons his wife, and the rest of the film, until his cue comes near the end. While George does strike me as an underwritten enigma, I can fill in the blanks quite well myself, and can understand the need to nudge him out of the way so that the film's strongest characters, the women — Madeleine, Peg, and Ashley — carry the film.

For me, Junebug's oblique, slantwise approach to its characters and story, when deftly executed and with an appreciation of me as not just a viewer but a co-participant, is one that reliably draws me in (and stays with me afterward) more satisfactorily than blunt on-the-nose storytelling and thudding thesis-statement screenwriting, the now over-familiar fruit of that Syd Field three-act-structure film-school catechism.

Junebug risks feeling like the common impression of a New Yorker-style novelette: a meticulously crafted, lovingly realized character study of someone doing the dishes. On the other hand, one of many reasons to love Junebug is how often it offers us spaces to fill in ourselves, the faith it shows in handing us small puzzles — Eugene's hand-carved bird, for instance — to chuckle over or think on afterward.

Music: Moby
Near at hand: Malamute Kai's pile of favorite plush toys