When David (Nivola) brings sophisticated Chicago new wife Madeleine (Davidtz) home to stay with his family in rural North Carolina, everyone is uncomfortable except David’s innocent and extrovert sister-in-law Ashley (Amy Adams).
OK so it is familiar territory, the awkward relationship between Uptown Up-tempo Woman and downbeat rural inlaws, but Phil Morrison, in his first film, makes it altogether more enthralling.
The family's North Carolina home, with its neatly made beds and ceramic wall ornaments, is as important as any of the main characters. Morrison lingers in empty rooms which are about to be filled with family turmoil or solitary tears, giving us the geography of this claustrophobic household with an acute understanding of the importance of space, or the lack of it, when a family comes together.
It is not just involuntary bedroom groans that embarrassingly penetrate the paper thin walls but it is also half over heard conversations, arguments and unintended home truths.
In a fine ensemble cast, Amy Adams, in an Oscar-nominated performance, shines through as the naïve but loving country girl, Ashley, who gives her heart to coolly sophisticated sister in law Madeleine (played with a powerful mix of comedy and emotion by Embeth Davidtz).
Ben McKenzie, star of the television hit, The OC, turns in an impressively underplayed performance too as Ashley’s repressed husband. We cringe, recoil and laugh as the characters collide then back off, making unsuccessful attempts at conciliation.
There are some overlong gaps in the laidback commentary from Amy Adams and Embeth Davidtz but it is nice to have an actor’s viewpoint for once, instead of the technical perspective usually offered by directors.
There are also a few decent anecdotes form the actresses, particularly Davidtz’s recollection of the embarrassment she experienced filming her sex scenes with Alessandro Nivola – the husband of her best friend in real life. Elsewhere, the original screen-tests of Adams and Ben McKenzie may be of interest to aspiring actors, and there are ten deleted scenes which were eventually left out by the director because he believed “some things remain best left unsaid”. This competent special features package is completed with five 3-minute featurettes, which include interviews with Celia Weston and McKenzie.
Morrison does not take sides in this family battle, neither does he tell us what everyone is thinking all of the time. We have to make up our own minds in an adult manner not always countenanced in Hollywood. None of the individuals in the three marriages really understand each other.
Ultimately though, in this sophisticated study of what keeps folks together, each couple loves each other and, with that, they can take on everything that life hurls at them.
Staring: Alessandro Nivola, Amy Adams, Embeth Davidtz, Ben McKenzie
Directed by: Phil Morrison
Extras: Full length audio commentary, Amy Adams interview and Q & A session in London, recorded in March 2006, Ten deleted scenes, Five behind the scenes documentaries, Original casting sessions (Amy Adams, Ben McKenzie), Ann Wood Art Gallery