Junebug (2005) and The Spectacular Now (2013): two films, made at different times, and very different from each other, indeed. Still, I watched them in succession and found them to be rather fitting compatriots.
Tense, intimate dramas tinged with humor (one more so than the other), showcasing stellar, star-making performances—fun fact: both films won special jury acting awards at Sundance—and set, I believe, in the southeastern United States—one, at least, in North Carolina, my home state. Nostalgia was the tip of the emotional iceberg with this fantastic twosome; you can read a few of my thoughts below.
Junebug, dir. Phil Morrison
When George (Alessandro Nivola) comes home to small-town North Carolina for the first time in three years–and six months after marrying upper-crust Brit and art gallery owner Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz, fabulous)—he is greeted by a family wary of his Chicago lifestyle and even warier of his choice in women. Mama Peg (Celia Weston, witty and thorny in equal measure) is downright unwelcoming toward Madeleine, Dad Eugene (Scott Wilson) is kind but scattered, and younger brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie of O.C. fame, delivering a fantastic performance) is seething with an unspoken inferiority complex. Only Ashley (Amy Adams in what I believe is her best role), nine months pregnant with Johnny’s baby, sits staring in wide-eyed, good-natured wonder at the glamorous Madeleine.
Though I loved nearly everything about the film—including the fabulous pairing of Ashley and Johnny’s tense, near-silent union and Madeleine and George’s libidinous but unsettled honeymoon phase—what the script (by Angus MacLachlan) and Morrison’s direction get most right is a tone of reverence. Never do we feel that George’s family is reduced to country-bumpkin status; instead, their difference in lifestyle is given ample room to grow and reveal itself. When Ashley finds herself mesmerized by Madeleine, which happens quite often, Adams’ performance suggests that this woman simply longs for female companionship, not an unattainable metropolitan life. When Johnny mistakes Madeleine’s affection for sexual desire, his frustration reads as deeply imbedded resentment toward himself, Ashley, and his family for tethering him down; his only escape is through menial labor at a local factory, depicted as a lively, stimulating environment rather than a depressive one.
Without its all-around stellar cast (particularly Adams, so incredibly likable in a role that ranges from low-brow comedy to tear-jerking sadness while maintaining a bubbly, genuine core) and authentic sense of place, Junebug would not succeed nearly as well. Still, the smart script—shifting between marital tension, warm humor, and near-tragedy with realistic ease—and thoughtful, leisurely-paced direction indicate a refreshing level of respect for the communities on display.
What could have been a humorous but emotionally slight look at a city mouse-country mouse meet and greet is actually a satisfyingly dark, very funny, and authentic portrait of a family coming together and coming apart.
The Spectacular Now, dir. James Ponsoldt
While Junebug mines the urban-rural divide for surprisingly warm comic effect, The Spectacular Now finds an atypical, sometimes deeply upsetting route into the standard teen romance. Though I knew the film was laced with a narrative around a high school alcoholic, I was shocked by the psychological depths plumbed by Scott Neustadter’s script and Ponsoldt’s unwaveringly tense direction.
Sutter (Miles Teller) is a high school senior. He’s also the life of the party, and when we first meet him as he attempts to write a college application essay, he believes a silly breakup with Cassidy (Brie Larson, in a delicious, tiny kernel of a role) the day before is the honest-to-god hardship of his life thus far. When he abandons the application, spots Cassidy with another guy, and gets too drunk, he winds up passed out on a lawn. Aimee (Shailene Woodley), an all but invisible classmate, finds him and, after a brief conversation, takes him along on her morning paper route. The two quickly bond, with somewhat stereotypically-bookish Aimee attempting to tutor you-don’t-know-your-potential Sutter in geometry. At one point early on in the film, Sutter, in a drunken haze, asks Aimee to prom; though he is happy enough to take her, he does not necessarily understand the weight of his question for Aimee, a young woman as susceptible to his charms and increasingly obvious alcoholism as she is to feelings of guilt and low self-esteem at the hands of an overbearing mother.
There is never a question that the film is leading toward a somewhat upsetting, disturbing climax. By foregrounding Aimee and Sutter’s relationship—it goes, well, spectacularly for a while, including a first-time sex scene so intimate, caring and real that you feel like you shouldn’t be there—the audience is aware that the narrative must progress in other ways. This includes a plan on Aimee’s end to attend college in Philadelphia with Sutter by her side. As graduation, and the threat of not passing, looms over Sutter, his lack of ambition and dismissive attitude become stronger. Ponsoldt wracks up the tension, never explicitly stating whether Aimee or Sutter recognize their growing problems. A trip to visit his long-gone, alcoholic father (Kyle Chandler) proves to be a more subtle than it sounds look-in-the-mirror moment for Sutter, and his explosive argument with Aimee feels sadly all-too-real. I won’t give it away, but even a potentially melodramatic plot twist is written with such sensitivity to each of the character’s psychological tics that a moment which could derail the film instead bolsters the final act’s emotional payoff.
In its final scenes, The Spectacular Now does not attempt to fully redeem Sutter; rather, treating him as an adult, he is allowed a complete and disturbing trip to rock bottom. A climactic, fittingly emotional scene involving Sutter’s beleaguered mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) reveals just how deluded this archetypical life-of-the-party kid’s existence has become. It’s a testament to Ponsoldt, Neustadter, and the leading actors that Sutter’s delusions and sadness are a shock to the audience as well; the realistic subtlety with which they play the after-school-special “problem” pieces of the film throughout are indicative of a larger message surrounding the tenacity of good vibes and “living for now” attitude embodied by Sutter and his peers.
By the end of the film, you will find yourself frustrated by Aimee and Sutter, but you’ll also probably relate to them in ways you wouldn’t expect. That’s the beauty of a film so attuned to its characters’ inner lives, and so respectful of young people’s very real problems. While the direction and writing are exceptional, Teller and Woodley are the MVP’s here. This film served as a coming out of sorts for each (though Woodley had already impressed in The Descendants), and the lived-in naturalism of their performances, at times grating and at others deeply vulnerable, was an indication of the stellar work they’ve produced since.
You should see this film because it is fantastic. But, if I’ve given you no other convincing reasons, see it for the alternately loving and toxic chemistry between these two bonafide stars.