Coming Home to North Carolina: The Christ-Haunted Terrain of Junebug

Junebug movie coverWhen Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago gallerist, meets Southern boy George Johnsten (Alessandro Nivola), it’s a whirlwind romance, clinched by a marriage ceremony at the end of week one. Six months later, it’s time to meet George’s family, so it’s off to Pfafftown, North Carolina.

A culture-clash dramedy written by Angus MacLachlan and directed by Phil Morrison, Junebug (2005) explores the themes of homecoming—geographic and spiritual—and escape. It was shot primarily in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where both the writer and the director were born and raised, as well as in Greensboro and Wake Forest. Location is key to the story and aesthetic of the film, as the camera often fixates on empty rooms in the Johnsten house, or tracks through neighborhoods and past the local church.

Most scenes are played from the perspective of Madeleine, an outsider art dealer who herself becomes an outsider—an outsider to the religious and family culture of her husband. We are given a taste of the disorientation she feels in the very first frames: footage from a National Hollerin’ Contest, a folk tradition of the state’s Piedmont region.

Mama Peg (Celia Weston) is suspicious of Madeleine from the start, thinking her an ill-suited match for her son. The taciturn father, Eugene (Scott Wilson), on the other hand, is fond of Madeleine and spends most of the movie looking for his screwdriver so he can make her a wooden bird. Johnny (Ben McKenzie) is the sullen, underachieving brother who resents George for leaving home. Johnny’s pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), is exceptionally and demonstrably thrilled to have a new sister-in-law; she’s wide-eyed, loquacious, and doting, and the emotional center of the film.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote that the American South is “Christ-haunted,” and that observation rings true in Junebug, where Christianity saturates the culture. Jesus’s name is invoked at baby showers and potlucks, in Sunday-morning sermons and fridge magnets, in conversations and aphorisms.

This is the environment George grew up in, that shaped who he is. We get the sense that faith used to be an important part of his life but that it’s something he shook off, or maybe privatized, when he moved away. We’re never told why he moved away—only that it caused a major rift between him and his brother. Why does anyone leave home? It’s usually to see and experience the world beyond his or her one small corner of it.

The film’s most pivotal scene takes place at a church supper, where George is reunited for the first time in years with his “home flock.” After spending time laughing and bonding with old friends of all generations and receiving prayer from his former pastor (Madeleine peeks with interested surprise at the reverence George shows; this is presumably the first time she’s seen him pray), George is invited to sing a hymn for everyone: “Softly and Tenderly.”  

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
calling for you and for me.
See, on the portals he’s waiting and watching,
watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home;
you who are weary, come home! 
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
calling, O sinner, come home!

O for the wonderful love he has promised,
promised for you and for me.
Though we have sinned, he has mercy and pardon,
pardon for you and for me.

Come home, come home;
you who are weary, come home! 
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
calling, O sinner, come home!

Junebug film still (George singing)

This is when Madeleine realizes there’s a whole other side of George that he’s never shown her, a side of sincere religious belief. As he sings, she stares with open mouth, taking in the sweet words while wondering how she could not have been aware of this part of his identity. Rather than scare her, though, this revelation elicits in her admiration, and a desire to know more. She smiles and applauds.

The “come home” refrain, which beckons the spiritual wanderer to return to Christ, is, of course, laden with double meaning. Mama Peg tears up, wanting so badly for George to come home to Pfafftown for good. The hymn even seems to have a small effect on angry Johnny: on the verse about love, mercy, and pardon, he turns around in his chair to look his brother in the face, one of the few times he does so in the film.

The following afternoon Eugene is sitting on the back porch with Madeleine. Peg has just gotten up to leave after shushing Eugene when he starts to tell a story, then, in her usual deprecating manner, telling him to sit up straight. Madeleine makes a comment about her having a strong personality. Eugene responds, “That’s just her way. She’s not like that inside. She hides herself, like most.”

She hides herself. Like most.

Why has George been hiding himself from Madeleine? Is he ashamed of his Christian faith because he worries she’ll perceive it as naive or backward? Or has he already decidedly cut that tie with his past—left the faith—and is now questioning that decision? Or maybe it wasn’t a definitive cut at all but rather a gradual drifting away: he moved up north, where Christianity is not assumed, and being so far from his church community, he just stopped growing. His churchgoing and prayer life diminished to nothing, and that’s when Madeleine came into the picture. On the other hand, maybe he’s wearing a mask for his family, pretending to be the person they know him as, which includes pious. Whatever his thoughts and feelings, they are hidden to Madeleine and to us as well. We are not let inside George’s head at all; he’s opaque.

“Guess who’s coming to dinner” is the setup for Junebug, but the movie is much more than that. Its real achievement isn’t the external conflict that plays out onscreen (which other guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner films tend to exaggerate for comedic effect) but the internal conflict that’s suggested, the struggle to answer those existential questions, “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?”

Junebug is a story of homecoming and leave-taking. George is forced to grapple with his heritage, spiritual and otherwise—how much of it to own and how much of it to leave at the wayside. As he does, he’s mostly absent to Madeleine, leaving her to navigate the Christ-haunted terrain of his home and hometown by herself. When she’s not getting to know George’s family, she’s in nearby Pinnacle trying her darnedest to woo an artist to her gallery—a semiautistic visionary who receives direction from a celestial being he calls Sister Glow-Ray and who also “believe[s] in Jesus Christ as [his] personal savior.” She, too, is forced to confront her views toward religion, an aspect that’s present in the subject matter of much of the art she shows and sells but that has never been embodied for her as vividly as it has been during this trip.

The comment George makes to Madeleine in their car ride back to Chicago is telling; her reaction, more so.

Junebug is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Classics. Watch the trailer below.

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