Junebug opens with the warbled songs of old men calling (for hogs? birds? to supper? to prayer?). It's the sound that signals dinner is ready, that informs children and favored pets that it is time to return home. Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) heeds the call, tracking George (Alessandro Nivola) through an auction at her "outsider" art gallery in Chicago. A passionate physical relationship ensues. While Madeleine is in pursuit of a North Carolina "naïve" painter, the newly-married couple drops in on George's family.
During the visit, George becomes a cipher, leaving Madeleine to navigate the family on her own. George's father Eugene (Scott Wilson) is only partially present; his mother Peg (Celia Weston, who has played this role often and well), hangs back and judges. To her Madeleine is "too pretty. She's too smart. That's a deadly combination." George's unpredictable brother Johnny (brilliantly played by Benjamin McKenzie) is frustrated, awkward, and groping, uncomfortable around both George and his wife, and maybe a little dangerous.
George's family is like something out of Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor. They are cranky and eccentric, maybe even slightly dull. What they all share is a soft spot for Johnny's pregnant young wife Ashley (Amy Adams) who disarms everyone, coaxing out their better, gentler selves. She is the energetic heart of the house, immediately taking a shine to Madeleine and helping her to navigate the family's sharp edges and potentially dangerous quirks.
Halfway through Junebug, I began wondering whether God was present. Whether the Jesus, whose assistance is called on for everything from curing disease to just getting through the day, was more tangible in some places than in others. Perhaps it was the North Carolina landscapes that inspired this thought. Those landscapes -- heavy, usual, still -- made me think about how some places and some people are sunk deeper down into the earth, perhaps tapping into a more primal spirituality. They inhabit the homeland that is so much bandied about these days.
The wide-open quality of Junebug, the long pauses between scenes, encouraged this kind of almost anthropological drift. Rooms full of cheap furniture, faux wood paneling and tacky, patterned wallpaper are photographed in an almost stately, documentary manner. Landscapes creep by, lawns hiss, you can almost feel the heaviness of the air, the slowness imposed by a thick heat. Sudden prayers feel awkward, every head bowing as the young mother-to-be blesses her baby shower. The film's Christianity is environmental, surrounding and engulfing everything, rising out of the mud, a product of the heat.
Each character Madeleine encounters is an expression of this place, rooted, indigenous. Born in Japan, the daughter of a British diplomat, Madeleine was raised first in Africa, then Chicago. Though she deals in outsider art; she is really the one who is forever outside. Madeleine woos both the artist and her husband's family, but only gradually comes to understand just what she has pursued and won. The events that unfold over the few days of the visit begin to feel something like a test.
Junebug has a funny, gentle-hearted, "life goes on" quality that sharpens and cuts in places. Conversations drift off-camera, through the rooms of George's thin-walled family home, emotions rise and sink. The film is unhurried, but steadily advancing toward a climax that is awkward enough to capture what it's like to meet the family of a partner for the first time, to better understand the life they left behind, the person they once were and the place they sprang out of.
Junebug by Phil Morrison opens August 12. Starring: Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Amy Adams, Benjamin McKenzie and Celia Weston.
Get theaters and show times (at sfgate.com).