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'Junebug': Welcome to the Rural World

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 26, 2005

"Interesting" is one of those kiss-of-death compliments in the movie business. It's a code word that ranks right up there with "You've done it again" as a noncommittal way to avoid saying someone's film is an abject failure.

But "Junebug" is interesting -- and in all the right ways. This deft, closely observed comic drama seems to have come out of nowhere, but in its own modest way manages to be one of the genuinely fresh discoveries of the summer, a little gem that deserves to become a big sleeper hit. Filmgoers left cold by the formulaic leftovers that are usually offered this time of year are urged to make their way quickly to "Junebug." Its deceptively small scale belies an ambitious commitment to story, character and genuine, revelatory surprise.

A cautionary tale about the dangers of romantic stereotypes, "Junebug" never traffics in stereotypes itself, even while it unapologetically, even giddily, celebrates romance. It's that rare movie whose feel-good moments seem to emanate from a human heart rather than a screenwriter's latest download from finaldraft.com.

Here, Embeth Davidtz plays Madeleine, a dealer of outsider art who travels from Chicago to North Carolina to woo a visionary painter named David Wark. (The visionary art world, as "Junebug" wittily conveys in its opening scene, is one in which things such as incarcerations and diagnoses of autism figure largely in a work's provenance.) Tagging along is her new, younger husband, George (Alessandro Nivola), whose home town is just a half-hour's drive from the artist's house. The couple combines her scouting trip with a junket home to meet George's folks, who still haven't met his bride six months after the wedding.

"Junebug" chronicles Madeleine's dual efforts to seduce Wark into signing with her gallery, as well as seduce George's mostly recalcitrant family. Neither job will be easy: Wark -- played by Frank Hoyt Taylor in an uncanny performance -- is given to extemporaneous outbursts during which he sermonizes on his unique cosmology, one that involves the Civil War, slaves, Jews and male genitalia. When Madeleine isn't commenting on how much she loves Wark's use of the scrotum in his imagery, she's back at George's family's house, where her husband has reverted to adolescent torpor, and where she must overcome his skeptical mother Peg (Celia Weston), his taciturn father Eugene (Scott Wilson) and his hostile brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie, almost unrecognizable outside his stint on "The O.C."). Indeed, Madeleine's only ally in what becomes a mildly disastrous first encounter is Johnny's pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), whose nonstop questions and immediate, passionate declarations of love for her new sister-in-law recall the breathlessly innocent Frankie in "Member of the Wedding."

Among the many, many felicities in "Junebug," chief is Adams's radiant portrayal of Ashley, who at first looks like she might be the target of the filmmakers' ridicule but who soon becomes the movie's deeply humanist heart. (This is a captivating breakout performance for Adams, who might be familiar to viewers for supporting roles in "Catch Me if You Can" and "The Wedding Date.")

Indeed, writer Angus MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison -- both first-timers -- reveal an admirable degree of control in a movie that, while playing with ideas of authenticity, sentimentality and condescension, never take those notions down predictable paths. For example, Madeleine, with her brisk British accent and double-cheek-kissing ways, could easily be portrayed as a patronizing urban sophisticate, a chic cultural tourist at sea among the rubes. Instead, the filmmakers give the character her full due, allowing Madeleine to make her share of mistakes, but also making her unexpectedly sympathetic and sincere.

And that's true of just about everyone and everything in "Junebug," in which characters -- not caricatures -- make good faith, if limited, efforts to understand each other. As often as not, those encounters result in considerable humor, not at anyone's expense, but at the recollection many viewers will have at having to surmount similar emotional barriers. Morrison, who is from North Carolina, filmed "Junebug" on location there, and the movie is suffused with the sense of place, language and culture that might be called the cinematic equivalent of a wine's terroir . The crises, when they come, are sharp and swift, with each word, gesture and glance meaning something important and real; there's not a piece of dialogue or a scene that doesn't ring true.

And when those crises come, the audience will care a lot about these people, because MacLachlan and Morrison have done such a thorough, compassionate job of giving them their full measure. "Junebug" takes you on an absorbing trip down back roads and hollers you've never visited before, and somehow, despite some grave setbacks, the wheels never come off. It's a quiet, funny, moving triumph, the kind of movie that gives "interesting" a good name.

Junebug (107 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual content and profanity.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company