Within the first few minutes of Junebug, we’re thrust into the world of outsider art—or at least the commodification thereof. We’re greeted with a cameo from Will Oldham and promised a score by Yo La Tengo—all of which helps mount hopes that we’re in for another indie-world-makes-good discovery along the lines of Miranda July’s tremendous Me and You and Everyone We Know. Unfortunately, if that very specific brand of lightning strikes twice this year, it’ll have to be with Mike Mills’ forthcoming Thumbsucker, and not with this respectable, promising, but generally unexciting feature debut from Phil Morrison, a veteran of videos for outfits such as Sonic Youth.
Junebug opens with Chicago-based visionary-art gallery owner Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) falling for mysterious stranger George (Alessandro Nivola) at an auction. Cut to Madeleine getting a call from her team of art scouts (which includes Oldham) alerting her to a kooky maverick in North Carolina named David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor) who paints religious interpretations of Civil War battles and/or slave uprisings in which exaggerated penises double as canons. Madeleine and George, now newlyweds, decide to kill two birds with one stone by heading south to visit both Wark and George’s family, who lives nearby.
This family consists of sour matriarch Peg (Celia Weston), beleaguered father Eugene (Scott Wilson), George’s sullen and resentful brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), and, above all, Johnny’s pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), a ditzy, shrill Southern princess with a staggering capacity for unconditional love. Most of George’s friends and family, save Ashley and the quietly tolerant Eugene, greet the wealthy, mannered Madeleine with suspicion, leading to turns both comic and tragic as Madeleine courts both their acceptance and a contract with Wark.
Junebug—Ashley’s pet name for the child she’s carrying—begins as a dark comedy in the Alexander Payne mold, but suffers from self-assurance problems as it slowly drifts onto more traditional dramatic ground. Furthermore, Nivola, part of the strong ensemble cast that elevated 2002’s Laurel Canyon a cut above, gets very little screen time early on, his George remaining a distant enigma until the movie’s last chapters—at which point he’s positioned centrally as though he’d been our main character all along. Such problems with tone and character—along with some offensively labored caricatures of Southerners—hold back an otherwise appealing movie that boasts a few truly great lines. Still, if Morrison’s jump from video work to feature filmmaking didn’t result in a fully formed work, Junebug’s good enough to suggest that he may just come up with something special the next time around.