It starts out with yodeling. An odd beginning, indeed, and it is never explained or mentioned for the rest of the film, but it immediately catapults the viewer into the world of Junebug. Directed by Phil Morrison and recently released on home video, the film is a Southern slice-of-life that defies stereotypical depictions of our region. It is able to reach beyond the average treatment of Southern people to delve into real emotions and characters that are as genuine as the outsider that arrives and observes their many quirks and tendencies.
It tells the story of Madeleine, an art dealer from Chicago who hears about an eccentric artist in North Carolina who would be perfect for her “outsider” gallery. However, her trip to see him serves a dual purpose, as her new husband’s family lives nearby and is ready to meet and scrutinize their new daughter-in-law. They consist of Eugene and Peg, the father and mother, Johnny the angry younger brother, and his very pregnant wife Ashley. Johnny is less than enthusiastic to see his successful older brother, since he himself has never graduated high school. Peg is very skeptical, and Eugene quietly listens to his wife’s misgivings. Ashley is ecstatic and quickly peppers Madeleine with a thousand questions about her lifestyle.
Based on the plot, one would expect a typical story about culture-clash with hilarious results. Indeed, there are humorous moments, but there are serious issues to be dealt with. The characters have real problems. Johnny is frustrated with his life, but instead of just sulking the entire film, he makes (albeit feeble) efforts to better his life and his relationship with his wife, whom he has habitually neglected. Eugene obviously has opinions of his own, but is never comfortable sharing them in the presence of his domineering wife.
This is the world of problems into which Madeleine falls. However, instead of trying to optimistically adapt and fit in, her own tendencies come out just as strong and the story becomes a conflict of wills rather than lifestyles, making the narrative that much more compelling. Instead of expecting the southern lifestyle to shift to include her, she must find a way to relate to them as an equal rather than someone descending from on high with sacred knowledge and customs.
Usually the South is shown in jest in films. This has sometimes resulted in Southerners underestimating the value of art in our region. However, Junebug, in the tradition of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, is a prime example of the kind of compelling art that can play out under the cover of our sometimes eccentric way of life.