Madeleine (Davidtz) is the recently married owner of a Chicago gallery of regional folk art. A buying trip to North Carolina will take her conveniently close to her husband George’s (Nivola) boyhood home, so George goes with her for an extended visit with the family: mother Peg (Weston), dad Eugene (Wilson), brother Johnny (McKenzie) and his very pregnant wife Ashley (Adams). It is George’s first visit home for three years and he’s not that keen to go home – he’s the one that got away and he’s happy to keep it that way.
George and Madeleine stick out like sore thumbs in this typically southern setting. Madeleine's air of urban sophistication immediately alienates Peg and intimidates Johnny. Peg is particularly suspicious of her – too thin, older, cultured and intelligent. The only person who seems genuinely pleased to meet Madeleine is Ashley. For Ashley, everything that Peg dislikes about Madeleine just makes her more perfect, and as Ashley is incapable of self-editing, Madeleine is soon almost overwhelmed by Ashley’s affection.
George’s brother Johnny, on the other hand, is less than thrilled by the return of the prodigal. Johnny and Ashley live in the family home, and Johnny is working at a local packing factory and studying for his high school diploma. Johnny already feels like a failure, and George’s return simply highlights his weaknesses. He truly loves Ashley but his inability to communicate is destroying their marriage. The situation is exacerbated when Madeleine offers to help Johnny with his Huckleberry Finn essay. Peg misunderstands Madeleine’s motives; Johnny feels condescended to and lashes out.
In this tangle of miscommunication and misunderstandings, the tension mounts…
Junebug is a charming small film elevated to a different level by a strong cast and an outstanding, Oscar-nominated performance from the wonderful Amy Adams as Ashley. Employing the ‘return of the native’ storyline, it gives it a new twist – normally a crisis precipitates a return home, but in fact there’s no reason for George to come home, and he doesn’t really want to be there. George pretty much fails to engage with anyone, content to bask in his accustomed place in the sun that he seems to have done very little to deserve.
Of course he is the apple of his mother’s eye, and Nivola has all the easy charm to make this believable, but George remains an unsatisfactory blank. His relationship with Madeleine is also odd – apart from the fact that they can’t keep their hands off each other, what is their marriage based on? They never seem to speak, and though his family are cold-shouldering Madeleine, George leaves her to flounder alone, increasingly reliant on Ashley to help her through the round of baby showers and church pot-lucks.
Ben McKenzie, barely recognisable as Ryan from the O.C., all nasty tache and greasy baseball cap, is very good as Johnny, bitter and resentful at home, but cheerful and confident at work, in his own sphere. And Amy Adams is just glorious, waddling around clutching her groin, delightedly absorbing facts about Madeleine and trying not to eat cake. In her naivety, she is the wisest person in the film, contrasted with the taciturn wisdom of Eugene, who defends Madeleine in his own way. Embeth Davidtz seems to be cornering the market in playing the kind of brittle women that Helen Hunt used to play, which is a shame when she was so good at playing the sweetly lovely Miss Honey in Matilda.
The film does take a couple of wrong turns, especially the bizarre sub-plot with the local, possibly crazy artist, whose work is – well – unconventional. But it's well written, capturing the Southern idiom, and a very funny, touchingly dry look at family disfunction.