Phil Morrison's Junebug is about a Chicago man returning home to North Carolina, where he introduces his new wife to his family. Curious, then, that the man occupies so little of the film. When the couple arrives in North Carolina, George (Alessandro Nivola) recedes into the background; he's absent from pivotal scenes where Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) meets his parents (Scott Wilson and Celia Watson), his brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), and Johnny's pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams) and spends time with them.
The choice to deny us time with George, which could be spent showing more of his relationship with his new wife, or dropping further clues as to why his brother resents him deeply, is all the more puzzling considering Morrison's (and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan's) eye for characters and detail. The Southern family is not altogether pleasant, but nor are they corn-fed caricatures; Madeleine, who is on the trip mostly to recruit a Southern outsider artist for her Chicago gallery, is well-meaning and only self-centered in the most human ways. Celia Watson masters the low-key hostility of a vaguely, perpetually annoyed mother; the family's varying degrees of wariness toward their new in-law feels right, though it's rarely articulated.
One member of the family embraces Madeleine immediately. While George naps on the couch, or stops for gas for what seems like at least an hour (you could make a game of imagining more elaborate reasons for Nivola's absence from much of the picture), Madeleine strikes up an awkward friendship with wide-eyed and eternally optimistic chatterbox Ashley. Amy Adams, who I've apparently seen in several films plus one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and never remembered until now, takes over the film in these passages, playing Ashley with sweet, heartbreaking enthusiasm. When Madeleine mentions that she was born in Japan, Adams says more about her character with the timing and inflection of her reaction line ("You did not!") than many actors give us in 90 minutes. It's one of the best performances of the year.
So Junebug is a movie filled with terrific scenes and strong performances; unfortunately, Morrison wedges between these scenes lingering of empty rooms, and bugs buzzing around tall grass. It's not the extended staticness that I object to; look at what Gus Van Sant does with similar shots in movies like Last Days. But Van Sant's recent films are about mood and atmosphere, and they drift around accordingly; Morrison has made a movie about actual characters, only to nudge the audience in their sides and call attention to what other critics have deemed his "sense of place." But "sense of place" is what we see in the background of scenes, not in a 10-second shot of an empty bedroom.
There are moments when self-conscious artiness meets truthful observations head on. Occasionally Morrison will cut from one room of the house to another before the previous scene's conversation is finished, and we can hear the muffled sounds of its continuation through the walls; the effect is uneasily familiar, and sort of beautiful.
Morrison may well be a good director, as so many of Junebug's moments and performances resonate like this; indeed, one of the most surprising aspects of his movie is the way it's naturally good without crossing over into greatness. Perhaps it's abundance of focus; he zeroes in on certain details with such laserlike concentration that the rest of the movie will recede into the background. His empathy for the characters, though, is tangible. Maybe that's why it takes George so long to visit the gas station; maybe he keeps pulling over to look at the grass.