Junebug (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Scoop's notes in white
The premise: a monosyllabic North Carolina boy takes his high-falutin', citified, polysyllabic, foreign-educated wife home to meet his monosyllabic family in their small town. The wife is a sophisticated art dealer who combines the trip with a recruitment push for an autistic "outsider artist" who lives nearby. It is difficult for her to gain a foothold toward acceptance into the closed dynamic of Southern life. In the film's climax, she has to choose between landing the coveted artist for her gallery or supporting her new family during a crisis.
Here is what Variety wrote about Junebug's commercial prospects in the thorough review in the Sundance Edition: "contemplative pic will need favorable word of mouth and critical support to thrive in theatrical rollout."
The film had very favorable word of mouth, nice write-ups in the IMDb, and some of the most enthusiastic critical raves of the year. Two thirds of all IMDb voters scored it 8 or higher, and it scores quite well across all demographic groups. Rotten Tomatoes reports that 88% of its reviews were positive. As it happens, that is exactly the same percentage earned by Brokeback Mountain, which seems like the likely Best Picture winner as I write this, two months before the Oscars. 88 is a higher percentage than that earned by such distinguished films as Munich, Walk the Line, and Pride and Prejudice. Junebug also got four stars from Roger Ebert and some other high-profile major print critics. In other words, it got everything Variety said it needed to succeed, and still could not venture beyond 143 theaters. It grossed less than $3 million in the entire United States.
The paragraph above should tell you two key things about the film industry.
As for me, I didn't even agree with the general praise for the film. It's filled with the usual Southern stereotypes, but we have such a strange dynamic in this country that this film was praised for the depth of its stereotypes! Strange, that.
The mother in the family is an controlling shrew. The father is a monosyllabic, taciturn man who spends most of his time looking for his screwdriver. The younger brother is a monosyllabic, resentful, sullen, uneducated, antagonistic man who makes no effort to be pleasant. The brother's wife is an awestruck pregnant motormouth who plays the usual character moviemakers come up with when they need a sympathetic Southerner - the moron with a heart of gold. As usual in movies, all small-town Southerners are quaint, eccentric Bible-thumpers. And then there is the painter being pursued so ardently, a guy who demonstrates that in the South even the geniuses are morons! He's a simple-minded racist, and his art is a series of primitive works depicting the Civil War as a matter of bearded stick characters with large semen-spewing penises. He ends up signing with the wife when he discovers that the rival New York gallery owners are Jewish.
I live in the South. I am 57 years old, and have spent exactly 25 years in Dixie, another 25 in the North, and seven years overseas. I have spent about an equal amount of time in small towns and big cities, and am not aware of particularly dramatic differences between the places where I have lived in America. I lived in Temple, Texas for years and dated a woman who came from a really tiny town in the center of the state. I ran the 7-Eleven stores in Western Florida. In no case, not even when I visited my girlfriend's family or interacted with my store employees, did I feel any special culture gap with the locals, or any substantial sense of resentment at my presence. Rarely did I hear anybody mention Jesus. Oh, yeah, we have our morons down here, but it seems to me that the percentage of ignorant, lowbrow morons is about the same in small-town Texas as it is in New York City, where I lived for four years. When I was a small boy, before the country became so homogeneous, it seemed to me that there were dramatic differences between various parts of the country. I'd travel with my parents through the Carolinas and not be able to understand a word spoken on TV by the news anchors. Then came network simulcasting, interstate highways, and corporations like McDonald's and 7-Eleven which operate identical facilities across America and move their middle managers around from state to state. Today everyone eats at the same chain restaurants with the same menus, shops at the same mall stores, listens to the same music, surfs the same internet connections, watches the same movies and TV shows, and gets their news from the same nondescript local TV anchors with the same generic Midwest American accents. The only differences between us are matters of degrees.
Despite the relative homogeneity of our culture, movies seem to perpetuate the myth that all white Southerners are ignorant, bigoted, Bible-thumpin', beer-swillin' morons. Well, I'm here to tell you that ain't so. Some Southerners are ignorant, bigoted, Bible-thumpin', moonshine-swillin' morons.
We call them "aristocrats."
Oh, and you know what? Here in the rural South we don't generally need anybody with an English accent to explain Huckleberry Finn to us, any more than the people of small-town Wessex need me to help them out with their understanding of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Oh, yes, there really are small-town Southerners like the people in this film, but there are also people capable of complex thoughts and art appreciation, and our IQs distribute within the population with the same pattern as anywhere else. So where should we look to see the rest of us, Hollywood? Where are the lawyers and doctors and scientists and hard-hitting journalists? Where are the Jewish people and the black people and the Vietnamese? Where this movie is unfair is not in showing that its characters exist, because they do exist, and the film shows us real people doing real things, but it fails to show us that they are only a portion of the population.
So if the film is not very sophisticated, and the critics went ga-ga over it, surely it is brilliant because of the camerawork, right? Well, yes, if what you love is long still-life portraits of inanimate objects. Say, there's some trees. Um ... yup ... there are the trees. Trees ... trees ... umm-humm ... trees. Say, why did we look at those trees, anyway? The camera did not zoom in to show us what was going on in that forest, nor did it pull back to show us how the forest related to something else. It just sat there, a-watchin' them-thar trees. I guess that was to recreate the traditional Southern evening experience of sittin' on the back porch, a-whittlin' and a-watchin' the trees. At any rate, if you liked that, the director repeated the same still-life technique with rooms of the house, allowing us to study them in meticulous detail. The Raisin Bran. The cigarettes. The pictures of Jesus.
As I guess you can determine, I was disappointed by this film. Frankly, I can't see why it is praised so effusively. I'm not saying it is a terrible movie. It has some good moments. But I think the state of our Union is perilous, and our stereotypes deeply ingrained, when we hail a filmmaker for adding some character depth to the usual Southern stereotypes, as if to say, "Yes, we are morons in the South, but - looky here - underneath, we morons have the same feelings as all of you."
Well, no shit, Sherlock! Yes, just like those sophisticated Northerners, we can cry and bond with our families when our children die.
Whoda thunk it?
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