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Southern Voices, Southern Rooms
by Chris Knipp

Junebug does a pretty good job of bringing indie dysfunction back into the realm of credibility and just about makes you want to trust Sundance again. Begin with Amy Adams, justly celebrated there. She's the central figure in this story of an estranged brother's return to his North Carolina family with a sophisticated gallerist wife in tow. Amy's the very pregnant sister Ashley, and the only family member who's consistently got both warmth to offer and things to say -- and say and say and say and say. She's a wonder, a joy to watch in action. (Even the trailer's usual gobbling up of best moments can't steal her fire: she's got lots more where those came from.)

Everybody's good, in fact, whether they're suspicious, like mama Peg (Celia Weston, herself a South Carolinian by origin); laconic like daddy Eugene (Scott Wilson, born in Georgia); imploding and unready for fatherhood -- or even conversation with other family members -- like younger brother Johnny, Ashley's husband (Benjamin McKenzie of "The OC," Texas-born); or well-meaningly out of place like the gallerist Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz); or quietly secure, but not up for saying much, like her husband and the returning son and brother, George (Alessandro Nivola, northern-ized by Boston, Exeter, and Yale). This may sound so actor-centered it's too theatrical, but it's not -- because Morrison keeps things highly visual with a camera that dwells meaningfully but not tendentiously on silent rooms and trees and lawns, building up a sense of southern places almost as subtly as a William Eggleston or a Stephen Shore. (The silences and still images are rather wonderful; the film's occasional musical backgrounds less so.)

The fact that Madeleine has come down with George to lure a Henry Darger-like looney, David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor) into her Chicago gallery's stable of outsider artists is almost too much of a metaphor, but certainly a resonant one. For this lady with a cosmopolitan background and "English" accent (actually Davidtz grew up in South Africa) her husband's family and just about anything that happens, from the hill men's hollers at the film's outset to the church supper where her husband surprises her by being called up to solo in a hymn, is "outsider art" of one kind or another -- as much as Wark's naive, offensive paintings of civil war fantasies where "niggers" have white men's faces. Davidtz has a crucial role to play not only because her character has to focus on keeping Wark from getting stolen away by a New York gallery while a family crisis is in progress, but because her accepting response to Ashley's onslaught of curiosity and puppy love has to seem warm without being condescending. She emerges as basically a nice person, as does even the most screwed up of the group, but that can't save her from missteps -- notably with Johnny -- that show the best manners and heart in the world can't save you in an alien environment.

There are a few things to question, beginning with the artwork and the artist, both of which seem a bit crudely drawn. The use of an outsider artist itself risks caricature. A short sequence of Johnny and his coworkers sounding off at their jobs with Replacements, Ltd. is lively and amusing, but seems spliced in from another movie -- something like Miguel Arteta's 2002 The Good Girl . Nivola's character is rather underdeveloped. And some of the silent spaces are a little too deadpan. Do we really have to watch Eugene watching a mattress being inflated? That's a bit too much like the proverbial watching paint dry.

But in most other ways the directing is good and the writing deft. If you feel a little hungry at the end, that's largely because -- Ashley's loquacity notwithstanding -- too much hasn't been said. There've been no easy tears or jokes or resolutions. Junebug has moments of violence and tragedy, but manages to be de-centered and low-keyed and yet still seem to matter. Madeleine and George drive off in their Volvo with a sigh of relief, and the movie ends there. Morrison and his writer-collaborator Angus McLaughlan work on a little piece of ivory, but they draw well. And they know how to keep their surprises from calling undue attention to themselves.

©2005 Chris Knipp
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