Week 35 – North Carolina
Every once in a while a movie comes along that makes you say, “That was a perfectly acceptable piece of film making.” From this point onward we will call these PAP films. PAP films aren’t bad films or even mediocre ones. Usually there is something about them that makes them noteworthy. Maybe it’s a standout performance or a really great soundtrack. However, PAP films never really linger in your thoughts long after the credits roll, the way really great films tend to do. When they’re over, you really don’t give them a second thought. You just move on with your life – that is, unless you’re forced to really sit down and think about what they’re all about. In a way, it’s PAP films that us critics really dread, not the godawful films. It’s easy to write about a really shitty film, the same way it can be easy to write about a really outstanding film. The films that fall in between are the ones that really make this job difficult.
Junebug has both a standout performance by actress Amy Adams as well as a really great soundtrack by Hoboken, New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo. Still, the film as a whole didn’t leave much of a lasting impression on me.
The movie tells the story of newlyweds Madeline and George, who live in Chicago. Madeline is an art dealer specializing in “outsider” art, works by artists whose personalities and or lifestyles place them outside of the arguably homogenized art world. This definition applies quite well to her latest discovery, David Wark, a mildly mentally-unhitched North Carolina eccentric whose crude paintings reveal a fixation on genitalia and violence. When Madeline decides to visit Wark at his home, George – a North Carolina native — comes along, seeing the trip as an opportunity to introduce Madeline to his family. It should be noted that Madeline and George only knew each other a week before tying the knot.
Through George’s family, Madeline discovers a side of George which she was mostly, if not completely, unaware. There’s his snippy and judgmental mother Peg, his sullen and withdrawn father Eugene, his brooding and temperamental brother Johnny. Lastly, there’s Johnny’s naïve and talkative pregnant wife Ashley, the only member of the clan that embraces Madeline with open arms. As for the rest of the group, they’re wary of Madeline and her city folk ways and customs. Like when Madeline stays up late one night to help Johnny with a community college class assignment on Huckleberry Finn. Peg gets suspicious – of what? Who know. Madeline tells Peg what she and Johnny were doing up so late. “Kind of,” she adds. “Talking.”
“I guess that’s the way you do things in Chicago,” Peg responds.
“What? Stay up late?” Madeline asks.
“Yeah. Talking,” Peg says.
This is the major theme of Junebug – the differences between countryfolk and cityfolk, rural and urban, poor and elite, Red States and Blue States. People from the city “talk.” People from the have more — abstract ways of getting their points across. Clearly one form of communication is more developed and effective.
Yet, there are areas where the North can not hold a Yankee candle to the South. When it comes to family, compared with other places, there seems to be more a sense of kinship among close-knit families from the South. In Junebug, we see this when Ashley goes into labor and Madeline chooses, instead of being with Ashley and the rest of the family at the hospital, to go and see Wark, the artist, who is wavering on his decision on whether or not to work with Madeline. George feels that Madeline’s place is with Ashley and the rest of the family at the hospital and gets upset with her.
Amy Adams puts on an amazing performance in Junebug, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination, the first of three Oscar nominations in that category (she was also nominated in 2009 for Doubt and this year for The Fighter.) Adams approaches her role as Ashley in Junebug with the innocence and naivety that only an ex-Mormon, daughter of a professional bodybuilder, ex-Hooters girl could do. I fell in love with the character almost instantaneously, in a scene where George’s family is anticipating he and Madeline’s arrival. While the rest of the family is moping about, Ashley is chattering away and watching out the window for their car to pull up. When they finally arrive, Ashley bombards Madeline with questions and Ashley is floored by some of Madeline’s answers (“I was born in Japan,” Madeline says. “You were not!” Ashley responds.)
Ashley is a great character, and not only for Adams’ portrayal of her, but also because of Angus MacLachlan’s script. Roger Ebert points out in his review of Junebug that the movie works so well because, no matter how quirky some of the characters are, the people that inhabit the world created by MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison never cease to be people – they never become caricatures. Junebug doesn’t take sides in the battle between North versus South. In some movies it’s clear that the filmmaker is coming from a certain perspective or background. Look at how lovingly Woody Allen portrays New York City or the care in which Robert Altman shows small town America in his films, often to the point that the “other side” seems almost alien. In Junebug, MacLachlan and Morrison manage to walk a fine line between the rural and urban America – almost.
George’s family is so well-developed that I felt I needed to know more about Madeline and George. We get very little insight into what George is thinking. That’s a problem if you consider him to be the center of the movie. (I suppose you could argue that Ashley or Madeline is the center of the movie as well, but I wouldn’t agree with you.) It was because of this lack of insight into George that, when the movie was coming to an end, and Madeline and George were driving back to Chicago … I didn’t feel anything.
Maybe I missed the point. Maybe I shouldn’t go into a movie expecting something revelatory. Maybe I should just learn to sit back and enjoy the ride. Then, in the future, when I watch a movie like Junebug I wouldn’t feel as though I had spent an hour and a half with a very interesting group of people that – with the exception of one young promising actress – I probably won’t remember a year from now. You don’t get much more PAPier than that.
Other North Carolina movies: Blue Velvet, Bull Durham, Most of the films based on Nicholas Sparks books including A Walk To Remember, The Notebook (Sparks is a North Carolina native)
Next week: Not Fargo