It may be possible to have a conception of another place's way of life without setting foot there, but conceptions don't always count for much. In Junebug, a polished low-budget feature debut from writer Angus MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison, Embeth Davidtz plays a Chicago art dealer who's traveled the world and developed a specialty in outsider art that's put her in touch with all kinds of people. She discovers how little she knows about life outside her rarefied circle, however, when she travels to small-town North Carolina to close a deal with her new find, a folk artist (Frank Hoyt Taylor) who paints bloody, heavily annotated, sexually explicit visions of the Civil War that look like a cross between the work of Henry Darger and Howard Finster. ("I love all the dog heads and computers… and scrotums," Davidtz says of a depiction of the Battle of Antietam.) She speaks of forming a connection with him, but she utterly lacks a connection with her family and her North Carolina-born husband Alessandro Nivola. Nivola's mother (Celia Weston) openly despises her, his brother (Benjamin McKenzie) lets his attraction for her mingle with his resentment of Nivola, and McKenzie's pregnant wife (Amy Adams, in a standout performance) can't stop talking to her, even though neither quite understands what the other's saying.
For much of the film, Morrison lets his unhurried direction take in the culture clash without blinking, capturing Davidtz's confusion over Adams' excitement at going to the mall and watching as Weston's silences poison the room. There's more discomfort here than in any of the half-dozen Meet The Parents knockoffs of recent years, but Morrison doesn't play them for laughs. He also doesn't quite know what to do once he gets going. The drama loses shape before it really develops, but the sense of place—all wood paneling and animal knick-knacks—and the memorable performances keep it worth watching. More than geography and time divides Nivola's implacability and Adams' chattiness, and more than family unites them. Davidtz can't quite figure it out, and neither can the film, but while their efforts don't feel satisfying, they don't feel wasted either. Maybe sometimes a wished-for understanding is understanding enough.