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Discovering Secrets

'Junebug' amazes with its insightful portrayals of people

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Junebug is one of those once-every-other-year kind of movies, a movie so insightful in the way it portrays people that it's downright scary at times. Director Phil Morrison and his cast are masters at portraying the nuances that make human characters human rather than vehicles blathering a bunch of words strung together to fill up movie time.

George and Madeleine (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz) meet at her art benefit, fall in love and are promptly married without Madeleine meeting his family. Six months later, they travel to North Carolina on a mission to sign eccentric artist David Wark (a wonderfully bizarre Frank Hoyt Taylor), who has a fondness for large genitalia and dog heads in his Civil War paintings. As part of their trip, they will meet George's family, who happen to live nearby.

Most eager to meet her new sister-in-law is Ashley (Amy Adams), married to George's aloof and despondent brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie). Ashley is in her ninth month of pregnancy, with a personality topping off the joy meter and utterly refusing to acknowledge the dark cloud hovering over her new husband's head. Within moments of meeting Madeleine, she's taking her on a trip to the mall and subsequently doing her nails.

Mom (Celia Weston) is suspicious of Madeleine ("She doesn't look like she can cook"), and Dad (the great Scott Wilson) is painfully reserved, often retiring to the basement to do some wood carving and take a break from his wife's watchful eyes.

It is clear that George hasn't told Madeleine everything about his home life. He has the appearance of a devout Christian, singing a striking hymn at a church gathering and closing his eyes for earnest prayer. Madeleine looks on as if startled that the man who slept with her moments after meeting actually cracks a Bible every once in awhile.

While significant events do take place in the movie, Morrison's film is more about discovering secrets and surviving the paranoia of marrying somebody before you know them. The look on Madeleine's face when George sings his hymn is priceless, as if she's thinking, "I actually married this guy?"

Great directing and writing doesn't require a massive back story, and Junebug doesn't spend running time explaining why George is secretive and insecure, or why Johnny treats his wife like shit, or why Ashley has such a sunny disposition. The viewer can fill in the back story, a fun task given the richness and complexity of each character.

Davidtz, who has had a nutty career full of triumphs (Schindler's List) and garbage (Thir13en Ghosts), delivers career-best work. It's the sort of work that should provide her with a career renaissance. Adams, also a Spielberg alumnus with her standout role in Catch Me if You Can, won a performance award at Sundance this year, and that's no surprise. Her work as Ashley, especially in a barn-burning scene shared with Nivola at a hospital, is revelatory. She's been seen as a reliable supporting performer until now, but I imagine this movie could open a lot of lead-actress doors.

Nivola, probably best known for playing Nicolas Cage's quiet brother in Face/Off, is so strong that it makes you wonder where the guy has been all of these years. Wilson gives the sort of performance that requires little along the lines of spoken word. He says much with his bewildered eyes.

This is Morrison's feature film directorial debut, and it's an amazing start at that. Based on the quality of performances he's managed to assemble for Junebug, Hollywood's best will probably be clamoring to work for the guy.

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