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Southern accents convey universal story

by Amy Kingsley

The most obvious feeling confronting a Triad viewer of the new film Junebug might be recognition ‘— those sloping hills, lush yards and steepled churches gracing the screen also inhabit the rural roads connecting and exiting Piedmont cities. Local landmark Pilot Mountain even earns a brief cameo.

Debut filmmaker Phil Morrison shot the film around Winston-Salem last summer over 20 days. Writer and Winston-Salem resident Angus MacLachlan conceived and wrote the original script as a play in 1982. He first collaborated with Morrison, who is originally from Winston-Salem but moved to New York 20 years ago, on a short film called Tater Tomater that screened at Sundance in 1992. Five years after that, the two started adapting the script for Junebug.

Although the journey from first draft to printed product took more than 20 years, the project has taken off since shooting wrapped. Sony Classics picked the film for distribution after a successful tour of the festival circuit that included an official selection at Sundance and Critic’s Week selection at Cannes.

The trip from Tobacco Road to critical success at Europe’s most storied film festival relied on more than the local landscape. The characters, despite their Southern accents, confront problems faced by anyone who must integrate the home they left with they life they’ve made for themselves.

The film starts in Chicago, where older brother George (Allesandro Nivola) meets his wife Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), the owner of an outsider art gallery. Six months after their whirlwind courtship and marriage, Madeleine’s work lures the couple back to North Carolina in pursuit of an eccentric painter. Once there, the pair end up staying with George’s family ‘— bristly mother Peg (Celia West), introverted father Eugene (Scott Wilson), angry younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie) and his pregnant and voluble wife Ashley (Amy Adams).

After the family reunites, George disappears, leaving Madeleine to navigate the customs and barely concealed resentments with Ashley as her eager guide. Between visits to the noncommittal painter David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), Madeleine endures Ashley’s tireless enthusiasm, Peg’s backhanded comments and Johnny’s outright hostility. Despite her confessed love for the South’s peculiarities, the gallerista stumbles trying to relate to the common life of her in-laws.

The painter Wark, who provides the initial reason for the visit, emerges as the disruptive force ready to fracture the family over loyalties to work or kin. In his few moments on screen, the actor delivers a stream of incoherent babble occasionally interrupted by brilliant pronouncements.

Director Morrison excels at creating an atmosphere of ordinariness that never suffers from a lack of drama. Most of the shots are still and uncluttered, and the quiet soundtrack provides ample room for the awkward silences and blurted phrases of a family struggling to communicate.

Morrison admitted that the film had raised some hackles, especially in North Carolina. Some viewers complained about a portrayal of Southern life they found offensive. Those viewers, however, might be responding to a close-to-home portrayal in a medium more often associated with fantasy.

Far from the played-for-laughs exaggerations of The Dukes of Hazzard, the Johnstens look and sound like the people they are intended to represent. That said, the film depicts the struggles of a single, fictionalized family not intended as a metonym for the South.

Not all the criticisms of the movie’s characters are without merit. While several of the characters transcend their limitations to emerge as complex individuals, others do not. Although she avoids the clichéd nastiness of most movie mothers-in-law, Peg’s disapproval of her newest family member appears rooted solely in stalwart resistance to Madeleine’s difference.

She alternately derides Madeleine’s thinness, inability to sew and what she perceives as an inappropriate relationship with Johnny. But her condemnation of Madeleine results from something less cultural and more personal, according to director Morrison.

‘“George wanting to marry a woman who is not like Peg at all is annihilating to her,’” Morrison said. ‘“And I don’t blame anyone for feeling like they’re drowning.’”

George is a cipher for most of the movie only to emerge at the end as the lynchpin during a family crisis. One of his most important scenes ‘— a stirring rendition of a hymn during a church dinner ‘— reveals more about the other characters, where they come from and how much they don’t know about him.

Amy Adams turns in a stellar performance as Ashley, which was recognized with a special jury prize at Sundance. In one telling line, she discloses that she tried out for cheerleader but didn’t make it. That figures. As the movie progresses, her jollity slips in small and significant ways as her husband Johnny escapes repeatedly under his broken-down car.

Despite all the pressure, the threatened explosion never happens. Instead George and Madeleine part with a little more understanding and a lot more questions, leaving their family back in the quiet world of Pfafftown.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy at amy@yesweekly.com.

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