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Where the heart is
A region 2 DVD review of JUNEBUG by Slarek
 

OK, stop me if you've heard one plot before. A boy falls in love with and marries a girl who hails from a very different background to his own. One day he takes her home to meet the family and her presence has a disruptive effect on them all. Swap the sexes and you can hop back to 1967 and Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and no doubt a whole load of others that predate it that I can't pull off the top of my brain at this very second. The encounter usually proves a learning process for both parties, where pre-judgement mellows into tolerance and understanding. That's certainly the gist of the enigmatically titled Junebug. Here the family are southern country folk and the new wife is an art dealer from the city. Can you guess how this plays out? If you think you can, you may be in for a few surprises. Nice surprises, as it happens.

Given the opportunities for broad caricature offered by the situation and characters, one of the first thing that strikes you about Junebug (I might as well say now that I'm not going to explain the title, as this can lead to second guessing on plot development) is that it resists such temptations and takes an unusually even-handed approach to all parties. No time is wasted getting the couple at the film's core together: George and Madeline meet in the first scene, get real friendly under the opening credits and by the time the film proper kicks off have been together six months. This is no obvious attraction of opposites either – Madeline may be the art dealer from the big city, but George is no simple rube, and a few minutes into the film is talking possible deals on his mobile like he was born to it. The pair deal in outsider art, and their latest find just happens to live in the area in which George grew up, the perfect opportunity to introduce the new wife to the folks.

Now to suggest that the film does not send up its characters would be misleading, but it does so in gentle and affectionate fashion: mother Peg is down-to-earth and practical, husband Eugene is unhurried to the point of stalling, brother Johnny is grumpy and uncommunicative, and sister-in-law Ashley is heavily pregnant and gets wide-eyed with enthusiasm at anything Madeline says or does. At first played largely for fun, the characters are soon shown to have considerably more depth than first encounters suggest. Johnny in particular appears to be hiding behind a mask of annoyance at just about everything, from his brother's success to the prospect of his wife – to whom he appears gruffly indifferent – giving birth to their child. At his workplace, however, he is a different man, cheerful and jocular and openly communicative with those around him, and his desperate fury at being unable to record a TV programme for Ashley speaks volumes about his underlying devotion to his wife.

The familiarity of plot elements soon becomes irrelevant, rendered fresh as they are by the setting and sometimes delicious character detail. Here the characters are everything and the narrative is always driven forward by them. Even a potential show-stopper in which George sings a hymn at the local church – staged partly for the song and its angelic delivery – is still primarily about story and character development. Personally I've always found such songs creepy and this one is no exception, but the scene still works through the reactions of the listeners, particularly Madeline, who in the six months of their marriage clearly had no inkling of this aspect of her husband's personality. Inevitably it is Madeline who has the most to learn (when you're in the country it's always the townies who are out of step), and she suffers the emotional punishment that her failure to read others or properly prioritise inevitably brings.

Junebug is hardly innovative in its style or structure, but its attention to character detail nonetheless separates it from many an independent American feature and just about any recent mainstream Hollywood film you care to name. Its unhurried narrative perfectly reflects the pace of life of its setting, and the performances are delight, notably Amy Adams as Ashley, whose exuberant, child-like enthusiasm is played just the right side of parody, and whose final scene reveals, as with all of the family members, that there is far more to this girl, emotionally and intellectually, than we are first led to believe. Everyone has their moments, but my favourite belongs to the resolutely unflustered Eugene, as he potters in his basement workshop in search of a missing tool, and wonders aloud to himself, "Where would I be...if I was a screwdriver?"

sound and vision

Anamorphic 1.85:1, the film was shot on Super-16 – becoming a very popular format for low budget filmmakers who do not want to go digital – and is in impressive shape. Detail is very good, and there is little evidence of the sort of grain you might expect from a 16mm blow-up. Contrast and colour are about right – there appears to be a deliberate use of softer, more pastel shades than primaries throughout the film, but flesh tones and black levels are on the nose.

The 5.1 surround track is, as you'd expect, an unflashy affair, with only music making active use of the rears. Clarity and dynamic range are fine.

extra features

Eureka have given Junebug a 2-disc 'deluxe edition' release and included a number of extra features, most of which are on disc 2.

The one extra that is included on disc 1 is a commentary by lead actresses Embeth Davidtz and Amy Adams, who play Madeline and Ashley respectively. A confirmed fan of commentary tracks, I actually found this one hard work at times. It's certainly lively enough and there are a few interesting behind-the-scenes stories, but there is a bit too much gushy back-slapping and "I love this..." style observations for my rather cynical ears. Davidtz also has a slightly tiring habit of calling just about everyone on the shoot "a genius," but you are left in no doubt that this was a very special experience for both of them.

Disc 2 kicks off with 10 deleted scenes (21:21 total), which are non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and timecoded, but otherwise in fine shape. There is no commentary to explain why the scenes were lopped, but almost all are fascinating in themselves, usually adding character detail and even the odd bit of narrative information. Three are separate angles on the same sequence, and the last of them, which runs for a substantial six-and-a-half minutes, expands considerably on the film's final sequence, though it could also be argued that it makes more explicit things that are better suggested. Either way, it's a very interesting inclusion.

Behind the Scenes consists of five short featurettes: Places and Faces (3:33), Singing a Hymn (5:24), Meerkats Gone Wild (3:06), Ashley (2:37), All About Peg (2:50). A mixture of interviews with cast members, behind-the-scenes footage and film extracts, they are all of interest, but do have the feel of bite-sized EPKs.

Amy Adams Q&A (21:49) was shot on the 12 March 2006 at the Soho Hotel in London following a screening of the film. Decently covered by multiple cameras, the interview itself provides some interesting background to the film and Adams' interpretation of her role. The actress and her interviewee are given separate sound channels, which can catch you out if your speakers are widely spaced. As far as I am aware, this is the only feature unique to the region 2 release.

There are two casting sessions, one for Amy Adams (13:58), the other for Ben McKenzie (7:18), who plays Johnny. It's always interesting to see a performance before it is fully honed and stripped of the polish of lighting, costume and sound mixing, but it's clear that the two actors here already had a very good handle on their roles.

Finally Ann Wood is a slideshow of the paintings of the Madeline and George's new discovery, David Wark, which were actually created by, you've guessed it, artist Ann Wood.

summary

Junebug is a well observed and pleasingly unhurried story of family and community that occasionally skirts close to cliché, but always manages to pull back before it topples. Consistently engaging, it lives in its small moments, its character detail, its well judged performances and Phil Morrison's almost invisible direction.

Eureka's 2-disc DVD is essentially a port of Sony's region 1 release, but with the added extra of the Amy Adams Q&A. Although not reason enough for owners of the region 1 disc to re-purchase, for the majority of UK viewers who are coming relatively new to the work, this is a largely fine package that should be sought out by anyone who prefers their films to talk rather than shout, and to be about people rather than spectacle.

Junebug

USA 2005
106 mins
director
Phil Morrison
starring
Amy Adams
Alessandro Nivol
Embeth Davidtz
Ben McKenzie
Scott Wilson

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Amy Adams and Embeth Davidtz commentary
Deleted scenes
Behind-the-scenes featurette
casting sessions
Amy Adams Q&A
Ann Wood gallery
distributor
Eureka!
release date
21 August 2006
review posted
20 August 2006

Related review
Junebug
[Blu-ray review]

See all of Slarek's reviews