(director: Phil Morrison; screenwriter: Angus MacLachlan; cinematographer: Peter Donahue; editor: Joe Klotz; music: Yo La Tengo; cast: Amy Adams (Ashley Johnston), Embeth Davidtz (Madeleine Johnston), Ben McKenzie (Johnny Johnston), Alessandro Nivola (George Johnston), Frank Hoyt Taylor (David Wark), Celia Weston (Peg Johnston), Scott Wilson (Eugene Johnston); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Mindy Goldberg/Mike S. Ryan; Sony Pictures Classics; 2005)
“Amy Adams gives a standout performance that’s worthy of Oscar consideration.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Phil Morrison in his debut as director wisely uses the engaging script of Angus MacLachlan for this well-observed bittersweet family melodrama/comedy. Morrison’s theme is mindful of Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel “You Can’t Go Home Again.” The film tells of the homecoming visit of the son, George Johnston (Alessandro Nivola), of a small-town dwelling North Carolina dysfunctional working-class family and how it affects his insulated family to meet his cosmopolitan British-born wife, the daughter of a diplomat, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz). The young couple married for only six-months and not up to snuff on their personal histories are living in Chicago, where Madeleine owns an art gallery that caters to “outsider art.” The visit to the in-laws is a result of Madeleine coming to that neck of the woods to lure Christian fundamentalist artist David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), a bigot who says his visions are inspired by God and that he’s “always had trouble drawing nigger faces.” The civil-war-obsessed artist is also being wooed by a New York gallery, and the competitive Madeleine refuses to lose her find.
The family members include the passive wood-carving hobbyist father Eugene (Scott Wilson); the strong-minded and suspicious of strangers mom Peg (Celia Weston); and the angry, brooding, inarticulate factory worker younger brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie) and his pregnant over friendly scatterbrained chatterbox wife Ashley (Amy Adams). The brother and his wife still live in his parents’ house. The family has different reactions to the outsider wife that range from Ashley’s reaching out with warmth to her as a smart soul mate, the father’s guarded friendliness, mom’s back sniping hostility, and Johnny’s sullen non-communicative negative reaction.
The mood set is of unease, as George distances himself from his wife and she is on her own to struggle making sense ofthese “red state”characters. Madeleine’s friendliness is seen mostly as being patronizing, and in one instance that is misinterpreted as trying to initiate a sexual affair. It points to cultural shock for Madeleine, who gamely tries to tutor high school drop-out Johnny for his GED by going over “Huckleberry Finn”, attend Ashley’s baby Shower, and make some kind of a connection with George’s intractable mom. George is mom’s favorite and he knows it, but never tries selling mom on his wife. Madeleine is also surprised when hubby is asked at a church social to sing a hymn and responds by pleasingly singing “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.”
Without giving away why the family is so tense and without having the characters be clichés or mouthpieces for some hidden political messages, the narrative comes to a boil when Ashley is rushed to the hospital with labor pains and Madeleine chooses to chase after the elusive artist rather than visit the hospital. But these plot lines are just continuations of the everyday life the story arc is built on. It becomes evident that the filmmaker is interested in presenting a genuine slice of life tale that reveals something about the characters that rings true rather than to bridge the cultural gap. The film acquits itself well by presenting strong characters, even those we know little of such as George (we don’t even know what he does for a living) and his father (a possible retiree), as real people trying to find their way in a contemporary American landscape that is seemingly built on sports, well-manicured lawns and churches. George, though well treated on his return, is glad to be going back to Chicago. Somehow we get the impression he’s escaping from his mom’s possessiveness, an empty life, a resentful brother and a culture that finds it difficult to change with the times.
The film’s boldest and most perceptive truth was said by the character who might seem the most shallow, Ashley, who tells her hostile hubby “God loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way.” That line rings true throughout the entire film, as the filmmaker never leaves these people as hopeless basket cases but cautions them to let go of their biases and psychological baggage or else they will never be able to truly find love within themselves. That other pics have said the same thing about such characters, doesn’t do this film justice. Every character is flawed but richly developed, and when they talk it’s only through their characters and not as plot points. There were strong performances by the entire ensemble cast, but Amy Adams gives a standout performance that’s worthy of Oscar consideration.
REVIEWED ON 9/25/2005 GRADE: A