THE "JUNEBUG" referred to in the title of director Phil Morrison's funny-sad first feature film is not the summertime beetle so ubiquitous in the Southern states, but the nickname of a character's unborn child. As such, it's a perfect metaphor for what the film is really about, which is the unseen -- but nevertheless strongly felt -- energies that pulse inside people, and the sometimes vain hope of establishing a connection between them.
Set in North Carolina, the story centers on the visit of a citified dealer in outsider art to her new husband's family. The purpose of the trip is twofold: Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) gets to woo a local painter (Frank Hoyt Taylor) she has been hoping to sign to her Chicago gallery, and George (Alessandro Nivola) gets to introduce his bride to his family, whom he hasn't seen in more than three years.
Of course there's a bit of a culture clash, and not just between Madeleine and her husband's down-home folks, Peg and Eugene (Celia Weston and Scott Wilson), who stand a little bit in awe and suspicion of their Japanese-born, English-accented and impossibly thin new daughter-in-law, who greets everyone with a double-cheeked European air kiss. There's also a certain tension between George and his younger, underachieving brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie of TV's "The O.C.," sporting a NASCAR mustache and a sullen stare), a high school dropout who is living in his parents' house while studying for his G.E.D. Smoothing things over is Ashley (Amy Adams), who, as Johnny's very pregnant wife, is both insider and outsider, and consequently acts as a kind of wide-eyed liaison between the two colliding worlds.
She also provides most of the film's initial comedy. Chatty as all get-out and clearly smitten with her visiting sister-in-law, the simple (but only deceptively simple-minded) Ashley is so overjoyed to be hosting guests from the big city that she practically vibrates with excitement. It's tempting, at first, to see her character merely as a rube-like foil to the sophisticated Madeleine, and admittedly, many of "Junebug's" laughs come at the expense of Ashley's naivete.
It would be a mistake, however, to write Ashley off as a country-fried buffoon. She may not be as worldly as Madeleine or George, but she is people-smart, as well as the film's moral center. Her eventual transition from sideshow clown to the film's dramatic heart forms the film's narrative spine and sets in motion the sequence of subtly shifting character dynamics that give the small ensemble drama (deftly penned by Angus MacLachlan, who has a real ear for the cadences and subtext of Southern speech) its surprising heft.
In the course of the story, Madeleine's innocent desire to help Johnny with his schoolwork gets misunderstood, both by Johnny and by Peg, who mistake Madeleine's interest as sexual. Needless to say, this leads to a cooling down of the film's up-to-then-jaunty tone, but "Junebug's" real climax comes later, as Ashley goes into labor, and the various priorities of her family members -- Madeleine's, George's and Johnny's -- bump awkwardly up against one another.
With its wise understanding of the magnetic pull (and invisible polarities) of family, "Junebug" is an auspicious debut for Morrison (see Film Notes on Page 38). It is, however, Adams's performance as Ashley that is the film's real surprise. There's something alive inside her, and it isn't just the child she's carrying. Ashley throbs with humor and sorrow in a way that isn't just watched, but felt.
JUNEBUG (R, 112 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and sexual content. Area theaters.