A junebug is a big scarab beetle that comes out flying in May or June to eat leaves and beget larvae that feed on the roots of plants and grass. Junebug pivots on two gorgeous human junebugs who are trying to get or stay attached to a tight, rooted family down in Dixie.
Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago dealer in outsider art, marries a smooth transplanted Southerner, George (Alessandro Nivola), after a whirlwind six-month courtship. She has never met his mom and dad. Ashley (Amy Adams) is the high school sweetheart and pregnant wife of George's brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie). If the baby is a girl, Ashley intends to name her Junebug. The film called Junebug is one happy surprise after another, even when the content is bittersweet or sad.
Phil Morrison, the director, is a virtuoso of the old soft-shoe. Working from a script by Angus MacLachlan, he deftly, rhythmically contrasts how the younger women relate to George's territorial mother Peg (Celia Weston) and endearingly rueful father Eugene (Scott Wilson) and inscrutable brooder of a brother. The resulting comedy-drama is as unforced and refreshing as a zephyr.
The occasion for the gathering of the clan is Madeleine's professional courtship of a folk artist living near George's folks. Ashley needs Madeleine to click as a daughter-in-law as badly as Carson McCullers' Frankie needed to be The Member of the Wedding.
Ashley is naturally gregarious; she could use a fellow conversationalist. Peg speaks only in pronouncements, threats and accusations. "I don't want your water breaking," she tells Ashley. "We just had the upholstery cleaned." Madeleine tells the quietly wise Eugene that Peg "is a very strong personality." Actor Wilson proves himself a wizard of understatement when Eugene, his character, replies, "She hides herself. She's not like that inside. Like most."
Madeleine may not know herself, but she doesn't hide herself. She brings her urbane ease and flexibility right with her into the country. She doesn't understand that her brother-in-law Johnny might misinterpret European kisses on both cheeks as more than familial affection.
In the movie's most difficult role, Davidtz has a quivering, wiry strength - she's the world's most malleable straight woman. And Adams is a wonderment as Ashley. She's the Krazy Glue that holds the movie together, except she's not so crazy. An open-faced, openhearted beauty, she's a near-impossibility - a lyrical motor mouth. Get into this knockout redhead's rhythm and you realize that everything she says has meaning, such as her remark to Johnny, "God loves you just the way you are. But he loves you too much to let you stay that way."
Religion figures heavily in this family, and Morrison observes its pull without proselytizing or passing judgment. George, that mysterious Windy City ex-pat, re-enters the milieu effortlessly, moving Madeleine and everyone else when he sings a hymn at a church supper. Madeleine's latest discovery (Frank Hoyt Taylor) regards himself as an instrument of divinity.
Madeleine makes a last-ditch effort to sign her prospective client instead of joining the rest of the family at a hospital for Ashley's delivery. It appears to be a crisis-point for George and his wife. But the movie is about what happens before and after milestones. Will Madeleine recognize that a slower, more settled way of living heightens appreciation for any human life? Is George suddenly anxious to get away from it because he secretly despises its inertia? (And is that why his brother hates him?)
Madeleine's first line to George in Chicago is "Where did you come from?" Junebug answers that question but keeps the riddle of who George really is in play. What Morrison and MacLachlan think conquers all is the kind of love in the terrific title song, which celebrates "The funny, funny feeling down in your heart." The small miracle of Junebug is that it brings that feeling up and out in the open.
Starring Embeth Davidtz, Amy Adams, Alessandro Nivola, Ben McKenzie, Scott Wilson, Celia Weston
Directed by Phil Morrison
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Rated R (sexual content, language)
Time 107 minutes
Sun Score **** (four stars)