Michael Koresky on Junebug
This season’s The Family Stone was merely another example of Hollywood’s failure to communicate. Holiday reunion films, meeting-the-parents ribticklers, road-trip family comedies—they all try and get at one essential thing: how families interact. The core lack of truth to so many of these films is really just a feeling, a sense that what you’re watching reflects not so much the inner workings of a group of people who know each other’s every move and word before they’re put forth or uttered, but a random mash-up of actors. It’s something untenable, and traditional modes of film narrative more often betrays than help the attempt to grasp it. The Family Stone started promisingly, thrusting the viewer into the disorientingly insular world of its Stone clan: barbs and blessings flew around their impenetrable kitchen walls like a bull in a china shop, and with much of their dialogue interspersed with furiously rattled sign-language so as to include a deaf family member in their debates, it seemed all too clear that the film was in essence a study in communication. Ultimately, writer-director Thomas Bezucha stabs his own film in the back, allowing his characters to devolve into Hollywood screenwriting vessels, hollow shells that trudge along a simplistic trajectory into pat rom-com resolutions, in which everyone is paired off with a disconcertingly apt soulmate. This breakdown in communication is indicative of a refusal by American filmmakers to devote much time or thought to the ways that family members actually speak, let alone interact—it’s basically what tightly boxed narratives are there for: easy fallback when the words fail you.
Director Phil Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan, in their feature film debut, found an ingenious way around the problem of putting onscreen an honest depiction of family—by going around it. Their wondrously humane and strangely spiritual odd-duck of a movie, Junebug, incisively gets at all that unspoken complexity existing in the spaces between family members by treating them as just that: spaces, gaps, blind spots. Family in Junebug is as aesthetically controlled as it is suffocatingly full; as warm as it is frigid. Jousting is ubiquitous: Brothers engage in unarticulated hostilities as outwardly as sisters-in-law fumblingly attempt emotional contact, and husbands and wives cut each other down with razor-sharp truth as much as they dull each others’ senses with politeness. In other words, the world in a house. How to enter upon such a simultaneously antagonistic and reassuring trunk full of decades-old angst and secret communications without seeming like a mere intruder? Embeth Davidtz’s Madeleine walks the line magnificently at first, though her brazenly self-assured mien gets quite a workout during her brief excursion to North Carolina. Attempting to balance a meet-and-greet with her new in-laws and a flirt-and-court with “outsider artist” David Wark whom she would like to unveil at her Chicago art gallery, proves far more delicate than she initially perceives. Yet more than anything, more than its oft-cited red-state/blue-state dichotomies, more than its fish-out-of-water conventions, Junebug is about the bonds of family, for better or for worse, and their propensity to morph and alter with each passing season, the need to make room for change, to allow for error, to accept transition with open arms.
What makes Junebug such a unique, even cathartic, experience, however, is its reliance on silence, not just as a mere narrative justification (many of the characters seem more than happy to not express themselves verbally) but as a visual and aural tool. Junebug straddles a fine line between realism and aestheticism—its determined mise-en-scene often gives way to almost documentary-like flights of fancy, suddenly brimming with Carolina locals, picking up on the sensorial surroundings of a church banquet-hall or a factory warehouse. There’s a fairly drastic split at play here between ceaseless chatter and contemplative quiet, and not just within the obvious differences between maddeningly with-child Ashley (Amy Adams) and her preternaturally collected brother-in-law George (Alessandro Nivola): think of how Morrison will shoot his family’s living space—at once populated by the joy of family babbling, the next moment empty, voices trailing off like the faint buzzing of flies as they exit the room and thus the camera’s frame. A succession of shots shows the now-empty house with a hush fallen over it, yet the space is still alive, breathing, cognizant, pregnant with memories.
Something familiar has become unfamiliar, made odd through what the camera is able to capture. This is Junebug’s greatest strength and what gives its mundane setting such an extraordinarily uncommon demeanor. Like Madeleine, suddenly we become the intruders, stumbling upon somebody else’s nicely appointed, very lived-in home, and though George (as opaque and comforting as his childhood home’s every nook and cranny) may be our husband, what exactly are we doing here? Fascinatingly, MacLachlan and Morrison, both North Carolina natives, chose the British-accented, Chicago-dwelling, Japanese-born uber-sophisticate Madeleine as the audience surrogate, and while Davidtz’s brilliant performance (every utterance is layered with at least five different battling emotions, concealing and revealing all at once: the need to impress, to hide, to ingratiate, to distance, to listen) guarantees the film’s ultimate success, it’s a precarious place for the audience’s sympathies. Through her eyes everything is slightly askew, and with her comes inherent disturbance: trying to teach George’s brother Johnny the subtleties of Twain, the disruptive appearance of the autistic artist Wark at Ashley’s baby shower. This is no mere Pollyanna story: the townspeople are not asked to change for the better upon Madeleine’s departure. Rather, a constant negotiation is at play between each family member, and Madeleine’s sudden, integral part to the stabilization of the family unit comes as a shock.
Morrison’s contemplative style (a thicket of backyard woods at nighttime is granted the same calm as an empty living room) keeps us constantly off-guard, a refreshing sensation in what initially seems a family comedy. Yet genre is ultimately beside the point, for Junebug coalesces as something far darker and thoughtful; if not tragic then somehow beyond feeling. The title itself refers to the film’s most gaping empty space, the place on which an entire family hangs its hopes, desires, and grief. The response to such grief in Junebug is an expression of sadness and longing that builds to a wail of solitude, as each family member cries silently in their respective beds, waiting for the sun to rise. Whether that void will be filled waits to be seen; the greatest irony of all in Junebug is that while Madeleine and George, their marriage having been put to the test under his family’s roof, drive off into the “great unknown,” the true unknown isn’t out “there” at all. It’s back home.