Aug 24, 2005 at 12:00 am

Another indie movie that takes a trip to dysfunction junction, depicting a family on the brink of collapse, set in the South — but don’t call the cliché police just yet.

Starring no one of tremendous acclaim (at least not until Sundance went ga-ga for this flick) Junebug is the kind of movie that could play the art houses unnoticed, withering against slicker productions from indie darlings like Jim Jarmusch. But it deserves more.

This first feature from director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan follows favorite son George (Alessandro Nivola) from Chicago to his native rural North Carolina, his first trip home in three years. He’s six months into his marriage to sophisticated, drop-dead gorgeous art dealer Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), who is trying to woo a new, undiscovered artist living near George’s hometown. This is her first time meeting her husband’s family, and the prospect is daunting. Cold and bossy mamma Peg (Celia Weston) keeps in line henpecked dad Eugene (Scott Wilson), angry, left-behind, younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie, doing his best to be as un-O.C. as possible) and his very pregnant bride, Ashley (Amy Adams). Everyone but Johnny heralds George’s homecoming, yet Madeleine’s presence only excites spastic and ditsy Ashley. Davidtz’s soft and smooth South African accent and Euro-chic wardrobe make her the sore thumb, even when she offers warm hello kisses and dresses down to an old T-shirt and shorts.

But the filmmakers are careful not to reduce their characters to caricatures; they seem to be basking in the complexities of the South, which is not as simple, sweet-tea-and-biscuits, yahoos-and-yokels as Hollywood or even the film’s title would suggest.

The filmmakers spend as much energy building up the characters’ stereotypes as they do contradicting them. Ashley is the best example of this, and Adams’ performance is clearly the best in the film, perfectly guiding her through the transformation. At first Ashley prattles with childlike excitement, regaling a stunned Madeleine in speeches on family history, the finer qualities of the local mall, and the beauty of a nail polish color named Cinnamon Fizz. Everything about her screams immaturity. But as the movie unfolds, Ashley is revealed to be the center of the family. Technically as much of an outsider as Madeleine, she’s the glue, and the only Johnston not hiding or lying about his or her emotions. By the film’s end, her sunny outlook seems more worldly-wise than simplistic.

The story, along with the sources of the Johnstons’ tensions and discord, is revealed at a tempered, easy pace. Shots that linger over empty rooms and clover patches make it seem as though the filmmakers are reveling in their setting, letting us soak in the feel of the quiet, knickknack-filled home and the sultry Southern air. It’s old, familiar territory, but every breath is fresh.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].