A newly-married woman meets her in-laws for the first time in Phil Morrison’s Junebug, and the result is not a chain of “Focker” jokes but a serious look at characters who are a little too quirky to be normal and a little too normal to not be true. Culture clash, class conflict, religion, and the definition of art lurk beneath the surface.
Talk About Nothing
At least two characters in Junebug have problems with communication. George’s father Eugene has turned into a man who seldom opens his mouth and spends most of his time woodworking in the basement, and George’s brother Johnny has become a simmering, angry young man. It’s significant that both are the products of marriages to strong-willed, talkative, demanding women. However, there is also an important difference: although he doesn’t say much, Eugene still communicates with his wife in non-verbal ways (for example, he makes her a wooden bird to replace the one Madeleine breaks at the beginning of the film) while the only communication Johnny is capable of is verbal and physical violence (he yells at his pregnant wife Ashley after he’s unable to force the VCR to record a show about her favorite animal, the meerkat; and he hits George with a wrench rather than engage in any sort of brother-to-brother conversation that could perhaps resolve their unknown but evident tensions). Eugene is not a talker, but he is a communicator; Johnny is neither.
Furthermore, Ashley’s complacent claims that Johnny is merely in a “phase” are proved false, and the film makes it clear that she craves communication with her husband. An extremely avid talker who attacks Madeleine with questions the minute she arrives, Ashley simply cannot exist without talking—it’s not a want, but a need of hers. In one particularly poignant scene, she actually “gets off” on conversation: lying in bed with a picture of Johnny in one hand, she masturbates with the other to the sound of Johnny and Madeleine having a sort-of-conversation about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s the only time that the film shows anything sexual happening in Johnny and Ashley’s bed; all other shots of the bed are cold, un-erotic.
Post-colonialist: “Junebug Hates Black People”
There’s a fascinating detail in Junebug that I’ve noticed in several other recent films as well; however, none have been as blatant and well-structured as this one.
Mere minutes after she meets her new family, Madeleine — who is British, the nation most synonymous with “empire” — is asked about where she’s from. She explains that she was born in Japan, moved to Africa with her diplomat-father, and now lives in Chicago. As innocent as the answer seems, there’s an interesting undercurrent: Africa, Japan, Chicago; Continent, Country, City; Black, Yellow, White.
Does Madeleine’s answer reveal an ignorance of geography; an attempted “dumbing down” of her answer; or a hidden racial, ethnic, or cultural hierarchy? Is the answer even hers?
Despite their middle-class, working-class identity, almost all of the characters in Junebug practice, or are involved in, some sort of art. Madeleine owns an art gallery, and wants to persuade a painter named David Wark to show his work there; George sings; Eugene works with wood; Peg makes crafts and sews; even Johnny tries to read literature. The only character to have no art of her own is Ashley. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for her constant references to motherhood. For example, on one occasion, she remarks that “children are the most important” in a marriage; later, she prays, “Help me be a good Christian mother.” Lacking an art and unable to forge an identity as a wife because her husband ignores her, Ashley strives for the only other role a strongly patriarchal society affords women: as mother. It is a final chance to define herself. This parallel between art and birth is interesting because, in an abstract sense, both artists and mothers give birth to something unique. Junebug seems to say that art is for everyone and that everyone needs an art.
Although mostly confined to content, art also affects Junebug‘s form. Most evidently, Morrison interrupts the flow of his film’s narrative on several occasions with still shots of empty rooms and landscapes that serve as painting-like images of the film’s well-captured setting — an aspect of the film that many critics praise.
On February 16, 2004, during an NHL game between the Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche, Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punched Avalanche player Steve Moore and drove him, face-first, into the ice, as a response to Moore’s earlier hit on Canucks star Marcus Naslund. Moore ended up with a broken neck and Bertuzzi ended up suspended by the league. More than a year later, Bertuzzi made his return to Colorado as his Canucks faced the Avalanche once again; and the fans let him have it. He was booed, jeered and heckled every time he was on the ice. After the otherwise unmemorable game, hungry sports reporters accosted Bertuzzi in the dressing room and threw Steve Moore-related questions at him over and over again, in an effort to goad out an emotional outburst.
“What did you think of the fans’ reaction?”
“What do you think about Moore’s newest legal suit?”
“Did you want to injure Steve Moore?”
“Do you think what you did is wrong?”
“Was it a cheap shot?”
But Bertuzzi was not to be had. He calmly and systematically answered whatever question was asked with the same, infuriatingly meaningless, words. Sometimes they didn’t even fit the question.
“It is what it is.”
“It is what it is.”
“It is what it is.”
In the last third of Phil Morrison’s Junebug, there is a scene of George’s new wife Madeleine helping his younger brother Johnny write an essay about Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Although she’s eager to help and knows the book well, he couldn’t be less interested or more passively hostile. Why is the scene there: are Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan playing up the idea of a British woman lecturing an American man about one of America’s greatest writers? Is it an attack on the state of the American education? Is it making a statement about the difference between knowledge of fiction and knowledge of reality? Is it suggesting that book knowledge can substitute for experience and wisdom? I don’t think so. In fact, the scene ends in an almost random way: Johnny gets angry and makes a sexual pass at Madeleine, who rejects him. Huck Finn is instantly tossed aside and forgotten by the narrative. And, yet, the scene works. Although it could have happened over any book or in any situation, the specific inclusion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn doesn’t seem insignificant or shallow. It seems the right book because it’s the book that Johnny was assigned to read. How could it be any other book?
The Huck Finn scene isn’t about anything other or bigger than its characters—much like Junebug as a whole. Although art, religion and family feature in the film, it isn’t really about any of those things. Instead, Junebug is squarely about its characters. When it delves into larger concepts, it is only in this context. In other words, Todd Bertuzzi was right:
It is what it is.
Rating: 3.0 / 4.0