Filmmakers can't resist the South, which seems ready-made for dramatic outings with its perceived "otherness," as if the land below the Mason-Dixon line were some exotic outpost of the regular United States ruled by heavily accented Bible-thumpers and quirky just-folks. Phil Morrison's small gem of a comedy-drama Junebug, set in North Carolina, manages to slyly tweak these myths so that we see them as the smug misconceptions we bring to any tale set Down South.
Elder son George (Alessandro Nivola) has returned from Chicago to his family home near Winston-Salem. He's brought his new wife, a sophisticated foreigner named Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) who has suggested the trip in order to secure a contract for her gallery with a local folk artist. The family meeting is awkward: Only Ashley (Amy Adams), the very pregnant young wife of George's younger, still-at-home brother, embraces Madeleine, and then with an intensity that borders on untoward.
But Morrison, working from a script by Angus MacLachlan (like Morrison, a North Carolinian), unfolds the story slowly, allowing small moments to illustrate the complicated family dynamics each character struggles through -- a tentatively returned wave, a hidden pack of cigarettes, a silver spoon. These are people who lead lives fraught with emotional distance yet inescapably interwoven. And first impressions prove unreliable: For instance, Ashley's cloying neediness masks a remarkable generosity, while George proves to be an unhelpful mystery to his befuddled new bride.
Junebug is especially clever about the notion of "outsider." The rooted-to-the-land native who still speaks a regional patois is dubbed by Madeleine as an "outsider" artist; Madeleine herself is woefully outside -- foreign-born, urban-based, a stranger to the South and to the family. It's implied that George, the favored son, has actively distanced himself from kin and background to move outside those confines.
And finally, we are outsiders -- ethnotourists via cinema to what initially appears to be yet another quirky, homespun depiction of the South, even as we, like Madeline, naively profess a lifelong affinity with the region and its culture. Yes, says Junebug, the South does have gospel singalongs, Civil War obsessives and sullen misfits. But the joke's on us for quickly assuming we know who those folks are.