Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of the late Roger Ebert, whose life and career is celebrated in the new documentary Life Itself, we’re recommending a few films the critic loved and championed.
As the most popular and widely recognized of all film critics, Roger Ebert reached a readership most professional wordsmiths can only dream about. So it was always heartening when he took up the cause of a small movie, raising its profile with nothing more than a skyward tilt of the thumb. Junebug was one such lucky sleeper—an intimate, perceptive American indie about a favorite son who returns to his family home in North Carolina, cosmopolitan art-dealer wife in tow. The film premiered at Sundance in January of 2005, just two months after a close election had supposedly split the country down clean ideological lines. But the culture clash depicted in Junebug goes much deeper than some facile Red State/Blue State divide. As Ebert pointed out in his glowing four-star review, the movie is populated by neither “provincial hicks” nor shallow, materialistic “city slickers.” Something more intangible separates the small-town characters from their urban visitors.
The nominal protagonist is Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), an English-accented interloper in the Bible Belt, accompanying her new husband George (Alessandro Nivola) to his old stomping grounds. But Madeleine proves to be more of an audience surrogate, the eyes through which we view George’s discontent kin. There’s his father, Eugene (Scott Wilson, from The Walking Dead), who putters gently through the house on some perpetual scavenger hunt, and his faintly judgmental mother, Peg (Celia Weston). Under the same roof, very pregnant flibbertigibbet Ashley (Amy Adams) wonders what great unhappiness has come over her boyfriend, Peg and Eugene’s son Johnny (Ben McKenzie), who simmers with feelings he can’t control or express. George, meanwhile, is Junebug’s center, but he’s also its biggest mystery—a man whose identity can’t be squared with the person everyone assumes he is. (There’s a great scene in a church in which Madeleine sees a side of her husband she never imagined; the film’s final line, spoken by George, casts the audience’s own assumptions about him under suspicion.)
Director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan demonstrate a shrewd understanding of their small-town milieu, of its rhythms and its values and its turns of phrase. The irony is that they’ve packed that insight into a film about how difficult it is to truly understand anyone, even close relatives. Ashley is the only character in Junebug who’s an open book, and there’s an argument to be made that she’s the movie’s real main character. (The title, after all, is the name of her unborn child.) In her breakout role, for which she’d score the first of several Oscar nominations, Adams radiates joy, curiosity, and vulnerability. Watch the excited way that she slips the word “fuck” into conversation, moments after hearing Madeleine use it, or the sad desperation she expresses while pleasuring herself to a photo of her and Johnny as happier, younger sweethearts. Ebert’s impassioned recommendation surely helped Junebug secure an audience. But no film with a performance as wonderful as Adams’ remains unseen for long.
Read Ebert’s take here.
Availability: Junebug is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, or to purchase through the major digital services.