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Deep Breath: Phil Morrison’s “Junebug”

Deep Breath: Phil Morrison's "Junebug"

Having moved away from my small New England suburb to New York City many years ago, I have noticed, with each returning visit, my perspective on my childhood home further evolving into something mysterious and ineluctably specific. It’s not just a matter of aging or nostalgia; there’s a sense of deepening awe I have with my little Cape Cod-style tract home, not just in the sense-memory that each room awakens but in the actual architecture of every corner.

Tiny adjustments have been made over the years; each (increasingly quarterly) visit is marked by some change in the kitchen countertops, a new potted plant, a couch covering of a different color. Yet the spaces remain the same, the living room, kitchen, dining room, bedrooms each imbued with a lifetime of experience — and standing alone in those empty spaces, with so much temporal distance now between me and my family, stirs up emotions almost inexplicable within me. I have taken to evening strolls outside but instead of circling the neighborhood often I have found myself in front of or behind my house, peering inside the windows, trying to gain a new vantage point on something I used to take for granted, the place I had developed and where the people who created me still reside and invest every corner with new memories I am no longer witness to.

These moments are recreated for me onscreen Phil Morrison‘s lovely American treasure, “Junebug,” a North Carolina based portrait of human contradictions and the conundrums of the familial bond which locates the ineffable, spiritual balm of the home womb. The opening of “Junebug” is more than slightly disorienting, moving headlong and devil-may-care from a romantic, joie de vivre credit sequence — in which Chicago art-dealer Madeleine (“Schindler’s List“‘s remarkable and expressive Embeth Davidtz, whose measured complex work shouldn’t be overlooked in the face of some of her more flamboyant co-stars) falls in love at first sight with George (opaque, grinning Alessandro Nivola) after meeting at a gallery opening — to a documentary-like investigation of the near-autistic North Carolina local outsider artist David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), whom Madeleine has come to the South to court for Northern exhibition. Wark’s Henry Darger esque cartoonish depictions of Battle of Antietam mass slaughter, enlarged cocks and balls, and uprising Negroes may leave the viewer unsettled. Yet Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan have devised a precarious balance between artistic inquiry and behavioral comedy-drama that pays off beautifully — we’re soon enough placed within the confines of George’s family home, a site of years of unspoken antagonisms and a hop, skip, and a jump away from David Wark’s blood-strewn canvases.

Morrison manages to convey a lifetime of domestic frustrations while simultaneously creating rich, open tableaux in which the emptiness of a room is as pregnant with meaning as any dialogue exchange between the family members. Soon after her marriage to George, Madeleine is welcomed into the family with varying degrees of warmth: mother Peg (reliable regional chameleon Celia Weston) is wary of her golden child’s new love, father Eugene (stalwart Southern standard Scott Wilson, here as touchingly self-effacing as ever) is almost catatonically unable to reveal what seem to be deep reservoirs of compassion, and younger sibling Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie) is suspicious of anything tied to his older brother, whom he resents with an almost irrational violence.

The film’s centerpiece is Johnny’s poppingly pregnant wife, wondrously wide-eyed and voraciously friendly, played lovingly and with more than a tinge of melancholy by Amy Adams; it is Ashley who most accepts Madeleine, almost clinging to her like a life raft. Morrison directs all the family’s interactions with both the discerning candor of Vincente Minnelli and the matter-of-fact spirituality of Charles Burnett; there’s an odd sense of ease that comes with even the most violent conflicts, a deeper knowledge that the family unit cannot be so easily upended. Yet Morrison, in a miraculous move, time and again lets the family recede from the camera’s view before showing a series of synecdochic cuts, the soundtrack taken over with trailing voices echoing from elsewhere in the house, or else with a complete hush. No spaces are empty, even if the narrative elides them. It’s a daring move, reminiscent of Terence Davies‘ elegant sound bridges and lovely dissolves in “The Long Day Closes” and “The House of Mirth“: projected onto the usually vulgarized space of the Southern American family, it’s a borderline revelation.

As the conflict between Madeleine’s professionalism and commitment to her new family deepens, MacLachlan’s script effortlessly shows how good people can make bad decisions; before you can even see it coming, “Junebug” begins to complicate its characters’ morals. In addition to Madeleine’s odd Sophie’s choice, there’s Nivola’s increasingly blank-slate George, often seen walking bemused through backyards and content to watch his family from the sidelines; the golden boy seems made more of impenetrable cast iron. It’s this opacity that provides for “Junebug”‘s ultimate framework; when tragedy strikes only the inexplicable mystery of family devotion can lead us into another day and hopefully a bright future, and like George’s façade, itself a thing of impervious architecture, the home will remain a bastion of hope. As David Wark explains his art, “My job is to make the invisible visible.” Well, this outsider might as well be talking about the warm insularity of Morrison’s vision, in which each corner practically sighs with weary love and the house is itself a living, breathing organism. Often, watching it is like standing as though a ghost in some long forgotten room, only to then realize that the room was once your own. I look forward to seeing it with my family.

[ Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and frequent contributor of Film Comment. ]

Ben MacKenzie (left) and Embeth Davidtz (center) in Phil Morrison’s “Junebug.” Photo by Robert Kirk/courtesty Sony Pictures Classics.

Take 2
by Danielle McCarthy

As a native Southerner can all too well attest, there ain’t too many cinematic representations out there that do not veer far from the “good ol’ boy” caricatures on display in the upcoming “Dukes of Hazzard” movie. Southerners are rarely portrayed onscreen as anything other than buffoons, laconic silent types, or racist pigs. The recent presidential election certainly didn’t help raise the South up and away from its stereotypes. With the country increasingly divided by an “us vs. them” mentality, constantly referred to as the “blue” and “red” state divide, some have even intimated that the two coasts should secede from the rest of the country. Surprisingly, I look to Phil Morrison’s quiet, humble “Junebug,” an examination of the familial connections between the red and the blue, for all the shades of the color spectrum in between the schism.

“Junebug” beautifully examines the effects of miscommunication on families yet never points blame or offers hollow solutions. At the end, there is no real breakthrough: Alessandro Nivola’s George absolves Embeth Davidtz’s Madeleine for choosing work over family; Eugene (Scott Wilson), who had been secretly carving a wooden bird for Madeleine quietly hides it in his back pocket — a moment of heartbreaking distance. But one can feel progress made despite the lack of narrative resolution. “Junebug” never bows to circumscribed Southern roles. Director Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan avoid moralizing or condescension to their characters, presenting a rich, complex examination of the America that the mainstream media continues to paint in broad strokes, one in which conflict is never easily bridged. In “Junebug,” the door is opened, and one hopes for a dialogue to continue to evolve and strengthen. Call me crazy, but watching Morrison’s modest film gave me hopes for relations between the supposed red and blue halves of our country — and understanding of its complexities.

[ Danielle McCarthy is a contributing writer to Reverse Shot. ]

Take 3
by Jeff Reichert

Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola in Phil Morrison’s “Junebug.” Photo by Robert Kirk/courtesty Sony Pictures Classics.

In a weekend that pits new releases from heavyweights like Werner Herzog, Wong Kar-wai, and Jim Jarmusch against each other, my money’s on a name you probably don’t know: Phil Morrison. A long shot for sure, but his “Junebug” hit me like I imagine Jarmusch’s “Stranger than Paradise” hit the hepcats back in the Eighties — as something so impossibly rare that, like “Stranger,” its status as a “New American Film” could be printed on the poster and turned into an effective marketing ploy. In a cinematic climate where an “indie stalwart” like JJ coasts on name recognition and a familiar haircut and I’m close to declaring Rob Zombie the most exciting new American filmmaker working, “Junebug” is much more than just a breath of fresh air, slight as it may seem on first glance. And though it doesn’t announce itself with the visual bang of a “George Washington” or “Ratcatcher,” “Junebug”‘s muted world of empty rooms and awkward exchanges remains no less realized.

Hyperbole only goes so far towards influencing ticket purchases — all critics have their favorites, and we’re all shouting for attention — so I’ll be honest: “Junebug” isn’t quite perfect. Perhaps it’s too hesitant at times (but most often interestingly so), perhaps it’s a little more interested in some characters than others (but again, to fascinating ends), and there is the nagging feeling that it all might not amount to a great deal (but then its modesty might be its greatest virtue) — my only honest gripe is Yo La Tengo noodling away on the soundtrack. Pretty, but when a film gets most of its mileage from that moment when voices drop away into nothingness (like in Terence Davies there seems to be a lack of ambient sound to catch words as they fall), there’s no need for tremolo’ed fretwork to cover the gaps. If “Junebug” shows us anything at all, it’s the amount of raw stuff that can be wrought from nothing (art, family, love), so why he saw the need to fill in here and there is beyond me. But don’t let that keep you — if you’re looking for a “New American Film” in theaters this weekend, you won’t find anything better.

[ Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures. ]

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