On the trail of an eccentric artist in North Carolina, a recently wed Chicago gallery owner (Davidtz) gets to meet her new family. But while her pregnant sister-in-law (Adams) gushes with enthusiasm, the rest of the household afford a more muted welcome.
The movie business lives and dies by hype. Few American films are released in this country without a glut of attendant ballyhoo, which seeks to cover column inches in tabloids with trivial features about the stars of a picture that will be forgotten within weeks of its opening. So, it’s always doubly delightful to stumble across a picture that is not only an enjoyable surprise, but which also contains a star-in-the-making whom the more sensationalist media is yet to tarnish with cheap celebrity.
Amy Adams lights up Phil Morrison’s pleasingly understated study of clashing cultures and backwater frustration. Yet she never seeks to outshine her co-stars, who seem content to bask in her glow. Heavily pregnant and hooked on the fashion tips and tittle-tattle she reads in chic lifestyle magazines, she seizes on Embeth Davidtz’s city sophisticate with an excitement that’s charmingly tinged with tactless inelegance. Yet, she’s much more than a provincial wannabe; she is genuinely devoted to her moody, underachieving husband (McKenzie) and exhibits a touching sense of acceptance whenever her dreams are cruelly dashed.
Her vibrant performance contrasts sharply with that of Alessandro Nivola, as Davidtz’s younger husband. The reason for his reluctance to return to his dysfunctional homestead is left to speculation. This intriguing vagueness becomes a source of frustration as his introspection begins to seem like impulsiveness rather than the result of a crucial psychological suppression.
Davidtz’s dealings with artist Frank Hoyt Taylor also feel occasionally contrived, as the director tries to teach her the importance of family — whether it comes in the form of a gold-digging sister (Joanne Pankow) or a mother-in-law (Celia Weston) whose hostility is born out of midlife broodiness. But much of the film’s wincingly wry humour comes from Davidtz’s determinedly gracious, but consistently condescending attempts to come to terms with her situation, most notably during a late-night bid to help McKenzie with a college book report.
Morrison laces the action with equally adroit sequences (the church social, the baby shower) which suggest that, despite Adams’ aspirations, most of the locals are content with their lot, and he poignantly stresses this gentle tension between backyard and big city during the conflicted Nivola’s affectionate bedside chat with Adams, which confirms that she’s a talent to watch.
The scenario may be overly familiar, but the low-key approach and engaging performances make this an unexpected delight.