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MOVIE REVIEW

A confused trip south in 'Junebug'

''Junebug" is the latest straight-out-of-Sundance drama about heartland folks struggling to articulate their volcanic emotions, and it has received a rapturous response from critics and discerning audiences. Allow this reviewer, then, to sound a note of dissent about a movie he found to be largely a passive-aggressive crock. ''Junebug" is a textbook case of filmmakers who can't make up their minds about their characters; it's a failure of nerve disguised as dramatic ambiguity.

The setup is ripe for either dark farce or poignant, insightful drama. Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) is a chic stick of a Chicago gallery owner specializing in ''outsider artists" -- self-taught painters and sculptors whose work can be crude, pure, and almost biblically intense. The British-born curator finds a refreshing innocence in them and remains blind to the possibility she might be exploiting the artists for their freak-show potential.

Not for long. After a courtship that seems based on one heady post-art-opening shag, Madeleine marries George (Alessandro Nivola), a handsome young businessman whose roots are in the American South. Upon learning of a folk artist whose paintings are blood-and-thunder paeans to the War Between the States, she heads down to Winston-Salem, N.C., to close the deal. Since George's family lives there as well, the newlyweds arrange a visit.

Faced with this black-clad extraterrestrial, George's mother, Peg (Celia Weston), slaps a veneer of politeness over a hostile scowl, while George's younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie of ''The O.C.") exudes a thick fog of impotent rage. George's father, Eugene (Scott Wilson), just heads to the basement to putter at his workbench. The only person who welcomes the couple -- the only person in the movie who seems alive -- is Johnny's very pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), who sees in Madeleine a sophistication she barely knew existed.

Adams is the reason to see ''Junebug," period, full stop. Ashley is one of those desperately cheerful chatterboxes who talks and talks and talks because to be silent would be to confront her life's emptiness. We learn very quickly that her favorite animal is the meerkat and that she wants to know ''what makes Madeleine tick"; the awkwardness with which she imitates her new sister-in-law's casual way with a swear word is as touching as her wordless mourning of Johnny's lost love. Ashley is fully and gloriously three-dimensional.

Unhappily, the rest of the family is shadow puppets, representing an attitude about the South rather than characters who might believably live there. Johnny stews with inarticulate anger and in one scene makes a foolish play for Madeleine, but he really only jumps to life in a brief scene at his workplace; the conflict between his two sides remains an underdeveloped conceit. Eugene is either an idiot or a saint; the idea that there might be a middle ground doesn't interest the filmmakers.

Madeleine's new husband, George, is the biggest cipher of all. He's given one fine scene -- singing a hymn with spine-tingling beauty at a church dinner -- and then denied further characterization. The effect is maddening: George is meant to be the X factor in this tour of Middle America, but the part is too underwritten even for that.

In the void, Davidtz works a minor miracle: She convinces you of Madeleine's constant kindheartedness even in the face of her own naivete. I'm not sure that's what the filmmakers want us to feel, though. At a certain critical juncture, George's family turns against this outsider artiste for reasons we're supposed to share, but such is Davidtz's deep-dish joy in her role that you're likely to stay on her side.

What ''Junebug" reflects isn't ambivalence about the American South so much as young filmmakers torn between loving and hating their roots (which, not coincidentally, plays very well to audiences who want to condescend to the small towns they've left behind while still feeling guilty about leaving them). Both writer Angus MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison are from North Carolina, but their view of local lives (cramped, of course), local art (twisted), and the part that religion plays in both is simultaneously indulgent and snarkily off-putting, like a sociologist holding his own family at the end of a pair of tweezers.

It's the artsy piousness of ''Junebug" that grates -- the sense that MacLachlan and Morrison are showing us how the ''little people" live while commissioning a score from alterna-rock godheads Yo La Tengo and imitating Yasujiro Ozu's shots of empty rooms to signify hipness. Meanwhile, native sons as varied as Ross McElwee (''Bright Leaves") and David Gordon Green (''George Washington") have come back from North Carolina with complicated, critical, and deeply sympathetic portraits of their home state. Next to them, the makers of ''Junebug" are the real outsider artists.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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