Each year it seems there are a few films that fly under the radar. I might hear some good things about them, but I just don’t get around to seeing them. Junebug was a film like that for me. I had heard a few good things, but until it was recommended by a close friend, I didn’t think much about it. It just kind of looked like the standard, indie, quirky comedy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I like some of those “SIQC’s”. However, in this case, director Phil Morrison, along with his writer and cast, has created a poignant picture of life in the South. Yes, there are some unique characters that one might consider quirky. Yes, the film was independently financed. And yes, there are some rather funny moments (though I’m not sure I’d like to think of it strictly as a comedy). But Junebug should not be qualified as standard, because it captures something too few films even aspire to any longer: reality.
Junebug reminded me at times of films by Bujalski, Tsai, and the Dardenne brothers. Not really in any kind of formal sense, as those filmmakers are rigorously devoted to their own unique senses of style. Morrison presents the elements here in a more straightforward fashion. Rather, each of those filmmakers has a knack for capturing real moments. And while Morrison is more closely tied to his narrative than any of those filmmakers, he still is able to make us feel as if we’re stumbling upon something or someone real.
Several things tune us into this reality: A key aspect of the family in Junebug is their lack of substantive communication with one another. It seems that everyone has something to say, but too often, nothing gets said. This frustrates us from the outset, as we are sort of in the position of Madeleine, the outsider from Chicago who meets her husband’s North Carolina family for the first time. No one speaks to her, except for Ashley, of course (she talks to everyone). And outside of Ashley, when Madeleine is spoken to, it’s often with at least a little edge, usually from Peg or Johnny. And while neither the silence nor the edge ever really let up, the film provides us an opportunity to see their true qualities lurking beneath the silence and occasional hostility. When tragedy strikes or someone is hurt, they have one undeniable virtue: they are there for each other. Even George, who’s been away from home for so long, feels the tug of family at those most crucial moments. Thus, Morrison here holds the tension between this family that doesn’t speak a whole lot about its problems, yet is deeply devoted to one another when the worst comes.
A second element that evokes reality: We learn to know these people by observing their surroundings. In communicating this, Morrison isn’t afraid to let his camera speak for him. Thus, we are allowed observe the quiet town, green front yards, empty rooms throughout the house, all without dialogue. These are people intimately connected to a particular place, and everything about them evokes that place. George, who left years earlier, anxious to get away, may be more connected to this town than any of the others. He exudes a quiet confidence, doesn’t speak a whole lot, and therefore allows his presence to speak for him more often than not. This is what the film often feels like as well: its mere presence does much of the speaking to us. Morrison often shows without telling.
Third, I was impressed with the characterization of these people, particularly the two young couples. There are a number of tensions and moments of connection between these four individuals, but Morrison wisely keeps most of that under wraps. Occasionally, something comes out, a burst of anger, sexual passion, or even tears. Junebug’s best moments are in between these occasional outbursts. Our introduction to Ashley is a great example of this, as words fly from her mouth faster than it seems anyone should be able to get them out. Yet, even in this opening flurry, we can already see the cracks in her relationship with Johnny, and her naïve way of trying to deal with it. It’s these moments, when things are communicated through tone of voice, a downcast eye, or someone quietly leaving a room that Junebug really excels.
All of this adds up to a gentle piece of work in Morrison’s debut feature. In one scene involving an artist with whom Madeleine is trying to sign a contract, he sits down with her and begins to explain his method, and how he communicates through his painting. In that brief conversation, he notes that he is attempting “to make the invisible visible.” I think that’s what Morrison and crew do here in Junebug. With a gentle touch, he shows us truths about these people and this place. This gentleness on the part of the filmmakers evokes an empathy and affection for their subjects, many of whom don’t do anything particularly likable. In this approach to the people who populate this film, we are offered an alternative in dealing with those who might act differently or believe differently than we. Morrison deserves the utmost credit for this gracious approach to his characters.