Phil Morrison’s contemplative Junebug (IMDB) opens with shots of Appalachian men “catapulting their voices in shivery hill country hollers.” The shots have a grainy, documentary feel, and while Voice critic Laura Sinagra notes that the images set up the film’s treatment of “outsider art,” they also establish Junebug’s reflective tone. The film’s story focuses on Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago art dealer who specializes in “outsider art,” and through her scouts, she learns of an unknown outsider artist, David Wark, whose images depict surreal slave rebellions (all the slaves have white faces) mixed with computers and other contemporary objects. Madeleine’s husband George happens to be from that same postage stamp of North Carolina soil, setting up the film’s homecoming narrative. Although Madeleine and George have been maried for six months, George has never introduced her to his family.
The homecoming narrative is a staple of southern literature and fim (You Can’t Go Home Again is the classic reference here), and it would have been easy for the film to trade in simplified red-state-blue-state gags, but Morrison’s quiet camerawork and Angus MacLachlan’s script are a little too subtle for that. George’s family is certainly suspcious of Madeleine, with the mom worrying that a woman as smart and pretty as Madeleine cannot be trusted. George’s return is greeted by his North Carolina community as something of a hero’s return. While his family regards te return with caution, the church welcomes him home eagerly, even coercing him into singing a hymn about returning home before the congregation.
Part of what I liked about the film was the way that it sets teh atmosphere. Rather than the gaudy, kitschy images of the south you sometimes see, camera shots quietly reflect on the spaces George’s family inhabits. One sequence simply and silently shows static shots from every room in his parents’ house. Later, George and his father meet for breakfast at a Waffle House, very much a southern staple, but rather than playing up the restaurant’s bright yellow signs, a menu in the bottom of the screen suffices to establish the shot’s location. These visuals support the understated dialogue between characters who are often uncomfortable with their emotions, particularly George’s younger brother, Johnny, who is clearly less loved by his parents than his older sibling.
The film is quietly critical of Madeleine’s enthusiasm for outsider art, which sometimes views these objects as quaint. More specifically, she is criticized for playing outsider artist David Wark’s anti-Semitism against a rival bidder for his art. Wark’s name, as some film buffs might note, recalls the name of David Wark Griffith, the director of the pro-Klan film, Birth of a Nation, and Madeleine’s willingness to exploit Wark’s art offers an interesting, if under-explored critique. In general, Junebug is careful to treat all of its characters with dignity and to recognize that basically, all of the cahacters have good intentions, but I sometimes felt that it also stayed a little too narrowly inside the Sundance/indie film formula to offer anything completely new. Of course, it does offer a brief appearance by indie rock star, Will Oldham, so that’s a point in Junebug’s favor.
Update: So far, the Cinetrix is the only other reviewer I’ve seen who has caught the reference to that infamous southern filmmaker.