Like hundreds of creative Southerners before them, Phil Morrison and Angus MacLachlan have Thomas Wolfe in their bones. The media notes for Morrison’s first feature, Junebug, don’t mention Wolfe, and the 37-year-old NYU Film School graduate makes a point of distinguishing between literary inspiration and what he, like Paul Schrader, calls “transcendental” film style. Nonetheless, the doomed author of Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again seems to haunt every frame of Junebug — yet another seriocomic tale about a son of the South returning to his roots and getting into serious social and emotional trouble.
Wolfe’s literary alter ego, George Webber, couldn’t go home to Old Catawba, North Carolina, a fictional version of the novelist’s hometown of Asheville. The protagonist — also named George — created by screenwriter MacLachlan and director Morrison (who is from Winston-Salem) has no better luck in the unnamed North Carolina burg where Junebug is set. For one thing, George Johnsten (Alessandro Nivola) has committed the unpardonable sin of abandoning his tentacular middle-class family for the Yankee corruptions of Chicago. For another, he has now returned to visit in the company of an overcivilized, foreign-born wife, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz, the terrified housemaid in Schindler’s List), who obviously doesn’t know a bowl of grits from a jug of moonshine. In fact, the film portrays her as an exploiter: An ambitious art dealer who specializes in “outsider” work, she is in North Carolina primarily to woo half-crazed folk painter David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), who hears voices from Civil War battlefields, and from heaven.
If the mystic painter’s grotesquery springs straight out of a Flannery O’Connor story (“You got purty legs,” he observes, his face twisted into a leer), George’s dysfunctional family is unmistakably Wolfe, with a touch of Tennessee Williams thrown in for neurotic coloration. The mother, Peg (Celia Weston), is a sour matriarch distrustful of strangers, which is not good news for the hard-trying Madeleine. George’s dad (Scott Wilson) is taciturn to the point of quiet desperation, taking refuge in his woodworking shop and barely bringing himself to ask for the salt shaker at dinner. But the most dynamic influences on the visiting Chicagoans turn out to be George’s combustible younger brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie), who works a numbing redneck factory job while half-heartedly trying to get his GED, and Johnny’s gushing wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), a good-hearted dope about to give birth to the unhappy couple’s first child. Ashley is the only one who takes to the stylish, sophisticated Madeleine, for obvious reasons. “Let’s play beauty parlor,” she coos.
Morrison says he’s aware that he has created a collection of Southern stereotypes — they’re not as broad as, say, The Dukes of Hazzard, but close enough — and that he means to transform them for his own dramatic purposes. How well he succeeds is very much in question, but Junebug (the nickname Ashley means to give her newborn) certainly has some weirdly compelling moments and lovely insights. For a start, the filmmakers capture the green silence of the rural South beautifully. A breeze rustles in the cottonwoods. Dew illuminates the morning grass. A flicker of light plays on a solitary house front. Many of the human moments work nicely too. Hauled off to a local church supper, the highly polished Madeleine looks on in astonished wonderment as her husband reverts to childhood, leading a hymn (what else but “Come Home, Ye Who Are Weary”?) in a clear and resonant voice. At a suffocating baby shower for Ashley, George’s disapproving mother holds up the tiny silver spoon her daughter-in-law has given and announces: “I don’t believe that can go in the dishwasher.” When the self-taught painter begins raving about the Rapture (“I’m ready to ascend any time!”), Madeleine is obviously startled — but no more by that than the sudden realization that she doesn’t understand her husband at all. You can take the boy out of the South, but …
In the end, Morrison and MacLachlan impose a tragedy on their film that is meant to advance all the characters. It likely does just that. But the real strengths of this promising, if sometimes amateurish first feature lie in first-rate performances (Adams runs off with the trophy) and its grasp of atmosphere. Only Southerners, you suspect, could have captured, all at once, the stillness of this patch of North Carolina, the quirkiness of its habits, and the dark force of its traditions. This independent drama may have its genesis in the work of writers like Thomas Wolfe, but it’s a gifted cast and a pair of ambitious young filmmakers who’ve brought it vividly to the screen, warts and all.