Madeleine and George (Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola) have been married for six months, and are making a road trip from Chicago to North Carolina to visit his family, who did not attend their rather hasty wedding. For Madeleine, it's also a business trip; she hopes to acquire the work of a local artist for her gallery, which specializes in "outsider art."
It sounds like the setup for Meet the Parents, but Junebug is no broad piece of slapstick; it's a comedy, but a deeply moving one about the importance and the frustrations of family, the ways in which we find ourselves locked into certain roles, and the shock of realizing that those we love are more complicated than we'd realized.
The Johnsten family doesn't exactly greet Madeleine with open arms. Mother Peg (Celia Weston) still harbors the dream that George might return home to live one day, so she's prepared to hate Madeleine from the start -- as she would any daughter-in-law -- for shattering that dream. Father Eugene (Scott Wilson) doesn't display much emotion, or even talk much; in the face of Peg's large, often judgmental, personality, he's withdrawn into the isolation of his basement woodshop.
George's brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie, of TV's The O.C.), is struggling to obtain his GED, and is frustrated by life; he's angry at everything and everyone, not least at his own lack of ambition. His wife, Ashley (Amy Adams, in a star-making comic performance), is the sunniest and most optimistic member of the family, and she immediately takes Madeleine to her heart, awed by Madeleine's big-city glamour and sophistication.
George isn't much help to Madeleine; he's changed in his years away from the family, and the George they remember isn't the same George that Madeline knows. The impossible challenge of maintaining both personas is more than George can deal with, and he largely isolates himself, leaving Madeleine to deal with the family on her own. (There's a certain irony, of course, in George's fear that Madeline will freak out at the discovery of his rural roots, when her career is built around the fetishization of the untaught, usually rural, artist.) The movie has very few scenes in which George is in the company of both Madeleine and another family member.
One of the few such scenes, though, is a stunner; the family has gone to a church potluck dinner, and George has been asked to entertain the crowd by singing a hymn. As he sings, quite beautifully and with complete sincerity and faith, the camera pans across the faces of the family. Peg beams with motherly pride, and unconsciously mouths the words of the refrain each time they occur: "Come home." Madeleine watches in amazement, realizing just how much she doesn't know about her husband.
Director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan do not judge or over-simplify their characters. Madeleine isn't just an insensitive sophisticate, looking down on her new relations; the Johnstens are not just uncultured hicks. The acting is top-notch across the board, with particularly fine work from Adams and Weston. This is one of the year's very best movies.