Junebug (15) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Click to follow

The spirit of Meet the Parents informs Phil Morrison's wry and oddly beguiling debut Junebug. It's not the farcical misadventures of Ben Stiller it recalls so much as the force field of awkwardness the newcomer must navigate once inside the in-laws' homestead. What's interesting about this film is the evenhanded sympathy of its treatment: because Angus MacLachlan's script favours neither one side nor the other, we are put under the unusual but very cheering obligation to make up our own minds about them.

Embeth Davidtz plays Madeleine, an English-born, Chicago-based art dealer who's recently married a Southern charmer named George (Alessandro Nivola). Desperate to sign up an eccentric "outsider" artist for her gallery, she goes to meet him in small-town North Carolina and takes George along so that he can introduce her to his family, who live nearby.

There's one glancing Meet the Parents moment early on when Madeleine accidentally smashes an ornament belonging to her new mother-in-law (Celia Weston), whose stiff formality is only slightly preferable to the churlish hostility of George's younger brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie), still stuck at home and stewing in resentment of his more successful sibling.

Yet the less than heartfelt welcome of this pair is eclipsed by Johnny's garrulous and hugely pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams), who is fascinated by Madeleine's big-city sophistication and immediately love-bombs her into friendship. The excitable nature of this young woman verges perilously on the disturbed. "My favourite animal is the meerkat!" she cries girlishly, unable to grasp what might qualify nowadays for adult conversation.

Adams, in a part that could so easily have been insufferable, makes this Southern Pollyanna a near-heartbreaking study in innocence - it made me wonder if she didn't deserve more than just a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. What's particularly admirable is the way she nails every scene she's in without overwhelming anyone else's performance.

Junebug is essentially a story about cultural and familial difference. Madeleine, embraced by the downhome South, makes an effort to be gracious, and even tries to help the sullen Johnny with his book assignment, Huckleberry Finn. But just how lost she is in this God-fearing milieu is illustrated in a parish get-together where husband George is invited to sing a hymn, and the look on her face as she listens to him says it all: she doesn't really know this man she's married.

At certain moments her refined tastes are lightly satirised. During Ashley's baby-shower her girlfriends coo over the pretty gewgaws, but they look bemused when Madeleine's present is opened: a christening spoon from Louis Vuitton. "That can't go in the dishwasher," mutters the mother-in-law. Later, however, her cosmopolitanism is seen to be a badge of moral superiority when she discovers that the artist she's been pursuing is a casual anti-Semite.

Morrison's direction can be a little ponderous in demonstrating his own sophistication, especially in the long, static shots of small-town quietude - a sunlit room, a lawn, a leafy avenue. While one appreciates its understatement, MacLachlan's script at times nudges into vagueness, most of it concerning George. Why, for instance, does he keep disappearing for long stretches? And what does he think of home now that he's left it? For the most part, however, the unhurried, contemplative mood draws you in, and the mixture of affection and distance towards the South is nicely handled by Morrison and his cast.