I generally enjoy the movies about dysfunctional families, and I liked this one a lot despite its annoying artsy pretensions. Maybe Juno is to blame, but it just bugs me when a movie practically waves arms at you and cries, oooh look at me, look at me and how quirky I am oooh! Just so you know how different I am, let’s open with a random scene of people yodeling! Fortunately, the movie had enough strong character writing and acting to compensate for the eye-rolling bits.
The story is the good old trope of visiting the in-laws. Madeleine, a sophisticated art dealer in Chicago, meets and marries George, whose family comes from a small town in North Carolina. When she finds out that a folk artist she’s dying to represent lives in the same area, she and George decide to kill two birds with one stone and visit his family as well. Soon, she meets the clan: a formidable matriarch of a mother who’s barely polite to her, her silent, withdrawn husband, George’s younger brother Johnny who’s something of a moody shit and often finds it hard to express himself in ways other than anger, and his sweet, excitable and very very pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams, whose performance here got her first Oscar nomination). Needless to say, with Madeleine the outsider around, tensions simmer everywhere, especially when she has to choose between the professional and personal interests later in the film.
It would have been easy to either present Madeleine as a snobby, stuck-up city bitch who needs to learn the true family values, or George’s family as a bunch of ignorant hicks we’re meant to laugh at, but the movie treats the culture clash with subtlety and has sympathy for all of its characters, allowing them flaws but never condemning them. Madeleine does come off as pretentious at times, but Embeth Davidtz, who plays her, has such natural warmth about her it shines through at all times despite her character’s severe, angular look. Amy Adams is another standout; Ashley could have been nails-on-chalkboard annoying with her enthusiasm permanently cranked up to 11, but Adams makes her utterly adorable, and it becomes clear that under all that frilliness and girlish squeals Ashley is a solid, genuinely good person. I also liked the way the movie showed how the family visit can reveal a side to your partner you never knew existed, like it does in the church scene where George does a beautiful rendition of a hymn that leaves Madeleine stunned. Though by the end of the movie there’s some predictable thawing on most characters’ parts, it doesn’t pretend that all family problems can be fixed in a single visit, and there’s no big clichéd climatic scene where everybody’s feelings come out in a rush and everyone just hugs and it’s all ok.
I only wish that my DVD had subtitles; I find thick southern accent one of the hardest ones to wrap my immigrant brain around, and I think I missed out on maybe 40% of the dialogue between Madeleine and the folk artist.