A breakthrough performance by appealing up-and-comer Amy Adams, who won a Sundance acting prize, should spark favorable press and aud awareness for “Junebug,” Phil Morrison’s understated dramedy about the ripple effects of a Northern yuppie’s first meeting with her dysfunctional Southern in-laws. But elliptical, indirect storytelling and overall muted tone might narrow indie’s appeal to more venturesome ticket buyers. A challenging but by no means impossible sell for risk-taking distribs, contemplative pic will need favorable word of mouth and critical support to thrive in theatrical rollout.
Economical early scenes establish Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) as a Chicago art gallery owner who’s briskly wooed and wed by slightly younger George (Alessandro Nivola), a hunky enigma transplanted from a small North Carolina town. (Pic was shot in and around Winston-Salem, N.C.) Months after their wedding, Madeleine plans a trip to husband’s home state to track down reclusive David Wark (scene-stealing Frank Hoyt Taylor), an eccentric artist whose bizarre paintings are even more impenetrable than his thick accent. George agrees — with conspicuously muffled enthusiasm — to join her on the trip so he can introduce her to his family.
From the start, “Junebug” establishes its m.o. of unspoken questions left teasingly unanswered (and, in most cases, unacknowledged). Why hasn’t George brought Madeleine home before now? Why wasn’t his family invited to the wedding? Why did he leave home in the first place? Helmer Morrison and scripter Angus MacLachlan merely hint at long-festering estrangement that provides an ominously percolating undercurrent throughout scenes in the modest but spacious family home.
Johnny (Ben McKenzie of TV’s “The O.C.”), George’s younger brother, reacts to his more successful sibling’s return with a mix of studied indifference and open hostility. Their parents — polite but faintly disapproving Peg (Celia Weston), taciturn and easily distracted Eugene (Scott Wilson) — warmly embrace their prodigal son, but are markedly more restrained in welcoming Madeleine. Indeed, Madeleine is greeted with unreservedly open arms only by Ashley (Adams), Johnny’s extremely pregnant young wife.
Partly due to her character’s generosity of spirit, but mostly due to her own charisma, Adams dominates pic with her appealing portrayal of a nonjudgmental optimist savvy enough to recognize the shortcomings of others, but sweet enough to offer encouragement, not condemnation. “God loves you just the way you are,” Ashley tells Johnny at one point, “but too much to let you stay that way.”
Working in less flashy mode, Davidtz impresses with her subtly detailed portrait of a career-driven sophisticate whose affability and graciousness occasionally appear condescending. McKenzie conveys all the pent-up resentment one would expect from an underemployed young man still living in his parents’ home with his pregnant wife. (A nice touch: The one time he attempts a selfless gesture for Ashley, Johnny drives himself to frustrated rage.) Weston and Wilson provide depth and detail to sketchy roles. But Nivola is hard-pressed to make sense of a character whose moods and motivations remain too opaque and arbitrary.
Shot in 16mm, “Junebug,” at least as presented in an HD transfer at Sundance, has a washed-out look that may be off-putting to auds who might otherwise enjoy the pic’s uncondescending view of Southern characters and customs. Yo La Tengo’s serviceable score is artfully supplemented with selections from Vivaldi’s mandolin concerto, the same music previously employed to terrific effect by Robert Benton (“Kramer Vs. Kramer”) and Francois Truffaut (“The Wild Child”).