The film centers on the relationship between a brother and sister living in a small town. Joon, short for Juniper, is a quirky mix of child and adult with an unmentioned mental disorder. Her brother, Benny, tries to take care of her as she terrorizes housekeepers, directs traffic in the middle of town and starts small fires. Benny has been taking care of Joan for twelve years and they have a close, symbiotic relationship.
One evening in a card game with Benny’s friends, Joan looses a hand and ends up “winning” Sam, a strange drifting cousin of one of the players. Benny and Joon take him home and Sam displays unusual talents at making everyone laugh. He is a film buff, of sorts, ranging from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin to very B-rate prom-slasher movies.
Primarily, we are served a love story filled with humor and unexpected delight. Joon creates huge paintings, vibrant with color. Sam cleans the house in a surrealistic manner and Benny is left watching it all in amazement. Ruthie, a disillusioned movie actress now waiting tables in a diner turns Benny’s head and heart.
At this point, the film flips back and forth, contrasting the courtship rituals created by Sam and Joon with Benny and Ruthie. Both couples have a strong attraction. How each deals with this attraction becomes a focal point in the Film’s romantic whimsy.
Aidan Quinn plays Benny with charm and understanding. He is the kind of big brother all sisters ask for. He never puts Joon down or ridicules her peculiarities. Quinn does amazing work with the part. Never overbearing or gratuitous, he shows the struggle of Benny’s paternal instincts as they collide with his own desire to go on in life.
As Joon, Mary Stuart Masterson is superb. Without being melodramatic and sappy, Masterson shows a character teetering on the edge of reality. She makes the unexpected reactions of Joon seem logical and realistic, while being puzzled at why those around her don’t make the same connections.
Sam is a little harder to peg. There is talk that he was kicked out of school and sent to a home, but other than some simple learning disabilities, he is more in touch with truth than any other character. Johnny Depp does a fine job in moving Sam beyond an odd outsider and establishing his honesty with sincerity. He also does a marvelous job at physical humor, some recreated from Charlie Chaplin’s cannon of shtick. Depp moves from wit to wisdom in flashes of excitement.
Director Jeremiah Chechik has paced the events with a great sense of timing. He knows just when to linger on reactions and scenes to make them come to life. Chechik also deserves merit for bringing back to the screen a true romance that doesn’t feel stale and dated in the 90’s.
Benny and Joon is a treat with its swirling colors, strange food and fine acting. Cameras swoop and rain falls. People find the humor in life as well as love. It’s classic film making with the senses of today.