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.”   Continue reading “Coming Home to North Carolina: The Christ-Haunted Terrain of Junebug