REVIEW by Willard Manus

There have been innumerable films about Southern families, but few that didn't treat them in condescending, even satiric fasion. The independent production JUNEBUG is an exception. Directed by Phil Morrison and written by Angus MacLachlan (two North Carolinians), JUNEBUG goes deep into the life of a Southern family, creating believable and complex characters and putting them into conflict in an assured, understated way.

JUNEBUG is a quiet film, one that unfolds at a deliberate (but not boring) pace--the pace of Southern life. There's drama aplenty, but it is never allowed to spill over into melodrama. The actors are given room to explore their roles, come up with the little details and truths that make for satisfying performances. JUNEBUG is very much an ensemble film, but one actor--Amy Adams--stands out memorably, which is undoubtedly why she was rewarded with a Special Dramatic Jury Prize for Acting at Sundance 2005.

Amy plays Ashley, a chatty, over-bearing but warm-hearted young girl who has married into a lower middle-class suburban family. Ashley is pregnant and married to Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), who was her high-school sweetheart and seemed perfect to her in every way. But Johnny changed when she got pregnant; it's clear that he was obliged to marry her and feels trapped by his responsibilities.

Johnny dropped out of school and went to work in a packing plant, but he doesn't make enough to afford paying rent, so he's still living at home, under the thumb of his taciturn, emotionally distant parents, Peg (Celia Weston) and Eugene (Scott Wilson). As silent and armored as they are, Ashley is noisy and vulnerable, all smiles and innocence.

The delicate balance of things is overturned when the family's golden boy, George (Alessandro Nivola) and his British art-dealer wife Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), come down from Chicago for a brief visit. George, the first-born was always his parents' favorite, though he disappointed them by leaving the fold and throwing his lot in with city-folk. George's choice of wife is also suspect: Madeleine is sleek and sophisticated, the daughter of a diplomat. She's also successful and hard-driving, desperate to become the exclusive rep for a famous local artist, David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor).

Wark is another richly-drawn character. A middle-aged, self-taught naive painter he seems a touch autistic. His pictures mix religious symbolism with graphic sexual imagery and his speech is equally bizarre and confused, almost child-like. Yet beneath the country-bumpkin facade lurks a canny businessman who knows how to drive a tough bargain.

Religion plays a large role in JUNEBUG. Peg, Eugene and Ashley not only belong to a Pentecostal church but are true believers, especially Ashley. When Johnny, for example, treats her in a cold, spiteful way, she tells him, "God loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way."

Johnny has to change when tragedy strikes the family. Everyone else is affected almost as strongly, but the older folks react by becoming even more silent and withdrawn; they suffer alone, weeping solitary tears in the middle of the night. George and Madeleine bring their problems more out in the open, learning some surprising, unpleasant truths not only about each other but themselves.

Deeply rooted in place and time, JUNEBUG is an intelligent, compelling drama that marks the film debut of a gifted writer-director team.