There are a lot of bad ways to make a movie about cultural differences, particularly when the plot revolves around a country-born city-dweller who returns to spend a few days in the conservative environs of his childhood. Defiant rebellion and sappy nostalgia are but two overused responses that come to mind. And when that character brings his new wife--urbane, polished, and utterly unreligious--to a potluck supper at his North Carolina Baptist church, the possibilities get worse. We can expect him to be either embarrassed by his background or defensive of it, and a wacky cast of supporting characters, including an over-the-top country preacher, are surely not far behind.

Thankfully, first-time director Phil Morrison has resorted to none of these hoary stereotypes in his film "Junebug," which opened in some cities last week. The result is a lovely movie that brings cultures and classes into contact with each other, and then steps back to allow the awkward negotiations, conflicts, and interactions to work themselves out on their own. It also presents a rare screen portrayal of someone who is from one world but lives in another--a character who is neither wholly blue nor wholly red, to use current political parlance. The existence of this species isn't exactly news to many of us, but it is acknowledged all too infrequently in popular culture.

In the Baptist potluck scene, our bicultural hero, George, acts in a way that is natural, not Hollywood. It will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever visited his or her childhood church as an adult. When the pastor comes over to his family's table and asks to say a prayer, George bows his head and closes his eyes, as his wife Madeline looks around uncomprehendingly. The pastor then coaxes George into performing the hymn "Softly and Tenderly," which he does with melodic ease and only slight embarrassment, hand in one pocket while the other holds a well-worn hymnal. He may not have been in the church for years, but he's wholly comfortable in it. The only sign that anything is amiss is the shocked look on Madeline's face: It is clear that she's learning both about her husband's religiosity and his musical talent at the same time.

But there's something else she seems to be trying to reconcile. In the very first scene of the film, we learned that George and Madeline met at a Democratic fundraiser. Like so many of us do, she appears to have assumed that from his politics she could safely deduce a number of things. Chief among these was the sure bet that George was secular like her--and certainly not a crazy Bible-thumper.

And he's not. The faith of George and his family doesn't have any of the fundamentalist baggage that Madeline might presume; it's not in-your-face. It does, however, flavor their lives, from the prayer George's sister-in-law offers at her baby shower to the rebuke she gives her husband ("God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay that way") to the emphasis placed on family.

The cultural bridge is absent.
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  • It is this last value that Madeline--an ambitious art dealer who has viewed this family visit as a secondary priority to signing a fickle local artist--has the hardest time grasping. In one of the most wrenching scenes of the movie, after the family has suffered a tragedy, Madeline gets a ride home from the artist and his sister. Elated at having finally signed him and wanting to seal the deal, she beams and assures them, "I am so happy right now." The artist's sister turns to Madeline with a grief-stricken face and says, "I am so sorry for your family's loss." It's an awful moment. This complete stranger is better able to think of Madeline's in-laws as family than Madeline herself.
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