Bug on a String

Celia Weston and Allesandro Nivola in a scene from Junebug

Junebug is like a casserole at the church pot-luck' you don't know what it really is, it's really now what you want, but if you're forced to eat it, it's not gonna kill you. 

The film, part of the LA Film Festival's Summer Preview series, is the type of independent film that became popular in the late 90s but has since fallen out of favor.  An outsider comes into a community of crazies and doesn't understand them, and visa versa. Ultimately everybody scratches their collective heads asking, 'Who is this person?'

In this case, the outsider is Madeline (Embeth Davditz), a Chicago art dealer who travels to North Carolina to land a new artist who does Freudian paintings for Civil War battles.  While she's there, she visits her newlywed husband's (Alessandro Nivola) family who live 'just down the road' near Wintston-Salem. 

In terms of plot, not a lot more happens.  George, Madeline's husband, has a brother and an expectant sister-in-law, Johnny and Ashley, living at home with their parents.  Ashley latches onto her new sister-in-law and tries to bond, while George keeps his distance from almost everyone in his family. 

The inherent problem with regional playwright Angus MacLachlan's script is that it focuses upon Madeline as the originating point of any inciting action.  Yet the film doesn't feel the need to tell anything about Madeline.   Instead of providing us with insight into her reaction to her new family, we just get amused glances.  Davidtz fails to provide any hints as to how the character really feels about the strangers she's married into, nor does she seem to want to know how her husband grew up in this environment, but turned out completely differently.  Though she obviously has been told nothing about George's family, she doesn't seem surprised at anything she discovers.  The only time she seems to be surprised is when George is called upon to sing a solo hymn at the church pot-luck social one night.  Clearly, she didn't know the boy could sing. 

Allesandro Nivola in Junebug

What makes the film remotely bearable is the character of George and Nivola's performance.  Managing a credible North Carolinian accent, Nivola creates a golden-boy who represents more to his family and the people of the town he left than he truly his.  He obviously has mixed feelings about the family he obviously loves, but felt the need to get away from. 

Nivola brings nuance and shading to the character, despite the weak source material he has to draw from.  As in his performance in Laurel Canyon, the actor manages to exude a natural sense of charm and style that fits the 'golden boy' status befitting George, especially since he managed to get out of North Carolina.  Nivola plays the confusion of being torn between two worlds well.  George is unable to tell anyone of his anxiety, and as a result he is forced to suppress his frustration and channel it into charm and smiles.  It is only when the family is forced to come together that George is able to do something.  The film's largest disservice to the character is that instead of being prompted to action in a way that demonstrates what is truly important to him, the screenplay causes him to divide his attention, thereby undercutting the character's desires and motives which negates any opportunity to shine any insight into his desires and motives. 

The film ultimately fails through its inability to establish a consistent tone.  Starting out as a kooky comedy, the film continues evolving through tones' none of which are convincing or appropriate. 

Amy Adams in Junebug

  Amy Adams and Scott Wilson turn in nice performances as Ashley, and Eugene, George's dad.  The remaining performances range from flat to misguided' all unable to overcome the lack of coherent ideas in the screenplay.  Director Phil Morrison shortchanges his talented cast by not showing more discretion in his directing choices, helping paint them into boxes that waste time instead of advancing the story.

Ultimately, like many of this indie genre's predecessors (House of Yes), the film isn't harmful or overly bad; it just doesn't work.  And only a child tries to catch a junebug that flies all over the place to play with it on a string.  Adults realize it's not worth their time. 


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