In Junebug, a Southern pastor begins his sermon, "When was the last time you were so filled with the holy spirit that someone mocked you?" Residing in that question is the heart of Phil Morrison's debut feature, which puts city slickers in opposition to Southern rubes. Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola play Madeleine and George, Chicago newlyweds in North Carolina on a twofold mission: for the couple to socialize with George's family and for Madeleine to seal a deal with a deranged outsider artist (Frank Hoyt Taylor, channeling Henry Darger), who lives nearby and paints hellacious tableaux with Civil War themes (Hey: outsider! Hey: Civil War! Mesmells a theme).
Junebug begins as a poker-faced but caricaturish culture-clash comedy, with Davidtz playing the straight woman to George's feckless father Eugene (Scott Wilson), tightly-wound mother Peg (Celia Weston), pissed-off brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), and bubbly, pregnant sister-in-law Ashley, played with fervid hormonal intensity by Amy Adams. Predictably, screenwriter Angus MacLachlan and director Morrison "complicate" the movie by proving the essential goodness beneath the Southern stereotypes and the rotting core of Davidtz's soulless urban concerns.
Morrison and his cast orchestrate a number of amusements based on the neuroses and simpleness of the Southerners, but Madeleine's missteps aren't played for laughs; rather, they are wanton and dangerous, suggesting that city dwellers are too smart for their own good. In one case, Madeleine ironically attempts to tutor Johnny on the subject of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he's having none of it, and her big-sisterly affection—shared at a quiet kitchen table by night—reads understandably, to Johnny, as flirtation.
Johnny and Ashley are, by far, the film's most vivid characters, suggesting that Junebug would be a better movie if George never came home at all to spark questionable comparative sociology when a New York magazine on the coffee table would do just as well. Idolizing Madeleine for her prosperous participation in privileged American culture, Ashley clings to faith and optimism so as not to face her own marital and social disappointment (her impulses collide when she tells her husband, "God loves you just the way you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way").
Johnny's unsuppressed anger at his own failures of motivation, which feel to him more and more irreversible as his wife's belly swells, slowly drives him mad. The pregnancy also quashes his desire for Ashley, but this apparent selfishness proves to be self-hatred and despair. At the film's sad-funny peak, Johnny tries and spectacularly fails to do a good deed for his wife by taping a special about her beloved meerkats; it's no wonder he rarely makes any effort.
By contrast, Morrison happily makes George, his Southern-bred surrogate, a cipher sketched by his implied Methodist upbringing, momentary choice of surroundings, and sheepish introversion—his most telling moment: singing the hymn "Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling" ("Calling all sinners, come home") to prove you can take the boy out of the South, but you can't take the Southerner out of the boy. Despite sensitive acting by Wilson and Weston, George's parents never surpass sitcom archetypes: neutered but loving dad and passive-aggressive, "she means well" mother-in-law.
The absence of expository clarification for any of the characters is being sold as one of Junebug's strengths, but whenever behavior begins to make intuitive sense, Morrison yanks the rug for rug-yanking's sake. Inexplicably, Madeleine never complains or even inquires about her husband's day-long disappearing acts, part of Morrison's conspiracy to arrange Madeleine's costliest failure of character. Witness also Johnny's final decisive act in the film, which—though symbolic of his feelings—has not even a hair-trigger to propel it in the moment.
In essence, Junebug is Phil Morrison's own argument with himself about his Southern upbringing and Northern adulthood, but the balancing act of character contradictions ultimately becomes more about itself than true human behavior. Schematic and manipulative, but swaddled in indie clothes and performed with creative conviction, Morrison's film has all the art-house cred it needs but too often fails too many of its characters, without whom Junebug is nothing.