George (Alessandro Nivola) seems easy enough to read. At a Chicago art gallery opening, surrounded by people dressed in sleek black, he spots the owner, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz). He meets her in front of a simple-seeming painting of deer in snow, exchange shy smiles. “It makes me happy,” he says of the artwork. And with that, the film’s credits begin, as George and Madeline kiss, playfully and earnestly. She laughs. He makes her happy.
“Where did you come from?” she asks. And his answer, “North Carolina,” is not so easy as it might sound. Some six months into their marriage (which occurs off screen), they’re on their way to his boyhood home. She has her own mission, a means to prod George into making this visit, who hasn’t been back for years. Madeleine wants to sign a contract to represent local “outsider artist” David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), who sees his primitivist paintings as expressions of visions direct from God. “My job,” he says, “is to make the invisible visible.” Depicting a violent local and national history (slave revolts) as well as clashes between generations (“I love all the dog heads and computers and scrotums,” murmurs Madeleine), the paintings are objects of desire for gallery scenesters. All the more so for Madeleine once she hears that a New York gallery owner wants to represent Wark; she becomes utterly intent on “winning” him over. “I think I’m in love,” she sighs on first seeing his paintings in person, the sort of comment that makes her seem superficial and earnest at the same time.
While it’s very clear that she adores George, the visit exposes the mysterious fragility of their marriage. In part, this emerges in their recognition of sides of each other they hadn’t quite known or anticipated, reflected in the responses of George’s relatives. The few days they all spend together shows that their superficial differences (of habit and affect) aren’t nearly as profound as their less visible differences (of values and ambitions).
George’s mother Peg (Celia Weston), proud and loving, immediately distrusts Madeleine as an “outsider,” but also because she seems manipulative; “I don’t think anybody taught her how to do [right],” she says, “She’s too pretty and too smart. That’s a dangerous combination.” By contrast, George’s soft-spoken father Eugene (Scott Wilson), quiet and observant, is more generous toward everyone, his wife and sons included. Still living at home, Johnny (Ben McKenzie) resents his older brother’s escape, but feels caught: studying for his GED and working at a kitchenware outlet, he’s married to his high school girlfriend, Ashley (Amy Davis in a charming performance), now about to give birth to their first child, whom she’s already named “Junebug,” as it suits ma boy or a girl.
Ashley — or more precisely, Ashley’s generous nature — serves to connect everyone else, as she’s endlessly open in her thinking about them, and urges them all to share her enthusiasm. She admires the ultra-thin and British-accented Madeline (“You look so pretty,” Ashley gushes, “You smell good too, all baby powdery and shampooey”), values the secretly kind George (even as he’s pulling back from his wife). She also feels devoted to her in-laws and wants more than anything for her husband to be like he used to be in high school — happy, energetic, and confident. But Johnny, fearful and frustrated, feels no such openness. He can’t imagine himself beyond his current life. When Madeleine offers to help Johnny write a paper about Huckleberry Finn, she tries to explain the concepts of slavery, racism, and “freedom,” leading Johnny first to erupt in self-defensive anger (“None of us need shit from you”), and then think she’s trying to seduce him.
Upset that she’s been misunderstood (and that Johnny’s hand is on her but, leaned up against the kitchen counter), Madeline is also beginning to see more into her husband’s background, to comprehend the tensions that make him a great lover and also an emotional puzzle. She’s newly defined, alien wife of the local boy who escaped his past but still solicits reverence from his erstwhile community, and as she watches him sing “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” at a church supper, her face reflects her own appreciation: the man is beautiful and unknown.
In recognizing George’s other life, extending before and beyond her, Madeleine also begins to see herself. Junebug portrays such reframings and delimitations, of borders that can’t be crossed, in images at once delicate and acute. Scenes that last only seconds, focused on empty spaces (hallways, doorways), waiting to be changed by a figure’s brief appearance, whether Johnny or Eugene or Madeleine. Each brings his or her own shape to the space, alters it, traces an outside and inside. In these muted, closed compositions, the film takes on a kind of painterly look, as if the action is paused for your reading.
As careful as Madeleine is in when she reads paintings, however, she can’t grasp the full movement around her. So she turns again to art, to expressions she can purchase and sell. Her renewed focus on securing her contract with Wark reveals to George a side of her he hadn’t anticipated. With their new knowledge of one another, they must decide how to move forward, within and across boundaries.