"JUNEBUG" (see review on Page 33) is about George (Alessandro Nivola), a twenty-something Chicago resident who returns to his North Carolina home town for a visit because his British wife, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) has business there. A fine-art dealer, she intends to make a lucrative deal with a very eccentric artist who paints bizarre Civil War tableaux, which he claims have been inspired by God.

George figures this would be the right time to see the folks and introduce them to his liberal, artsy bride. The nonreligious city slicker Madeleine comes to a community where Christianity is everyone's immediate baseline. Can you say culture clash?

At first, "Junebug," written by Angus MacLachlan and directed by Phil Morrison, feels like a Sundance-movie visit to a gaggle of regional eccentrics. But soon enough, the characters' broad brush strokes become engagingly original, and the subtleties emerge. That was Morrison's game plan.

"I wasn't interested in avoiding stereotypes or cliches," says Morrison, a southerner turned New Yorker himself. "Because I think that's a fool's errand. You go around and around trying to make that happen. It was a question of accepting or acknowledging these cliches . . . and saying, yes, these are types. But then exploring these types and moving them towards human-hood."

When he conceived George, the southerner who has the ability to be a New Yorker and then come south and turn on the Dixie charm, Morrison had a certain former president in mind. Like Bill Clinton, Morrison says, George "has this ability to compartmentalize."

But George-as-Bill was only Morrison's private notion, the filmmaker insists. The movie is all about people's own interpretations. There are several moments, for instance, when shots of the countryside are shown in virtual silence. These are moments that can be thought of as bucolic, or merely transitory, or even a little eerie.

Those brief sequences, Morrison says, "were meant to allow people watching the movie to be in their own head. My favorite experience [going to see a film] is not that the movie was so great I got lost in it and I forgot I was watching. My favorite experience is I'm completely aware that I'm watching a movie, and it's transcendent and exciting. And it allows my own participation. Those scenes were, hopefully, to give room for that, or give room for your own thoughts about anything. My mind wanders all over the place when I'm watching a movie. And without being glib, I think it's nice to have room for your mind to wander -- of course, without missing anything like a plot point. But it's a reminder that there are people making this movie. This is somebody's perspective. This is not real. This is theater. A movie is a triangle between the audience, the characters and the person who made the movie."

Morrison says he wanted to avoid pat explanations that he finds all too often, not only in Hollywood movies, but in independent movies that have increasingly begun to ape the studio formulas. In "Junebug," for instance, George's younger brother, John (played by Ben McKenzie of TV's "The O.C.") feels anger toward George that is never fully "explained."

"It's possible for people just to live their life and be the way they are, and pursue legitimately what they wish to pursue. But the nature of their relationship and their proximity to each other -- also known as family -- make that kind of resentment just a given. John feels small, feels inconsequential in the face of George, period."

A studio, Morrison hypothesizes, would have forced Morrison to come up with some event in the past, not to mention a "monologue from Johnny to explain the point." And wouldn't there be some hugging? "Yeah," says Morrison, who hopes the movie will find its audience,

moviegoers who will be receptive to a decentralized story in which "I take the audience's sense of identification and spread it around among many characters. It's a good experience to have."

-- Desson Thomson

First-time director Phil Morrison is a former southerner himself.