The Goddess of wisdom
JUNO (Jason Reitman, USA, 2007) — 8
JUNO began as an at-festival add to my Toronto schedule (based on sky-high buzz filtering in from the Telluride Festival) and the subject of conflicting advice — Noel Murray was convinced I’d hate it, based on my famously low tolerance for Indiewood emo quirkfests; Josh Rothkopf thought I would like it, noting that I’d loved Reitman’s THANK YOU FOR SMOKING and adding that he’d want to discuss the film’s portrayal of abortion with me. But the only time I could see it was only one hour after the start of ATONEMENT. I got a ticket anyway planning to leave ATONEMENT midway through if it wasn’t working. Well … that plan to see JUNO didn’t work out. So, I saw it last week … and Josh is correct. I even upgraded the film from a 7 to an 8 sitting in my memory and after a conversation with a colleague at work (more on that shortly).
To state the obvious stuff: Diablo Canyon’s script about an unexpectedly pregnant teen girl who searches for the perfect parents for her unborn child is more than just very funny. It’s also smart in how teens talk — constantly smart-alecky, but also self-deprecating, i.e., smart-aleckness applied to oneself. And that’s the other key to the film’s success. Juno (unlike, say, Enid in GHOST WORLD, the kind of movie Noel knew I hate) is a *lovable* character because her wit isn’t just bile directed out at a world she looks down on as beneath her.
In fact, Juno may be the most memorably lovable character in an American movie since Marge in FARGO, another pregnant woman (though pregnancy is merely a fact about Marge, not the movie’s (surface) subject like here). Like Frances McDormand, Ellen Page’s open-faced performance creates a fundamentally good person, albeit a very sassy one, and Page’s ease in tossing off all the sarcastic barbs in Canyon’s script erases all hint of Hallmark saccharinity. Nothing here about motherhood as a sacred calling or anything like that, but I would go so far as to say Juno is what Generation Y virtue looks like.
Then there’s the portrayal of abortion. Of the handful of recent fictional films about “unplanned” pregnancies — also KNOCKED UP, WAITRESS, 4 MONTHS, BELLA — JUNO actually is the one that devotes the most energy to the “abort or not” questions; though in BELLA, it’s the central, albeit usually-unstated, issue. Juno initially decides to abort, but in a great scene she meets one of her classmates doing a one-woman picket at the clinic. I don’t want to say *how* she does it (the scene is surprising) but the friend plays a major role in Juno’s deciding she couldn’t abort. If there’s been another Hollywood or Indiewood movie where an abortion-clinic protester was not portrayed as yelling, murderous theocratic scum, I’m unaware of it.
Then there’s the reaction of Juno’s parents — they back her going through with the pregnancy and know more than Juno thinks they do (parents are always SOOOO stupid, you understand). The mother also gives someone what-for when her daughter becomes the object of criticism. In other words, they do what they should. What’s pro-life in all four of the named English-language movies is that they’re about, in different ways, how an “unplanned” pregnancy needn’t be the end of the world, which is usually the moral license (sic) given to abort. Indeed, the four movies in question even have four different resolutions — open adoption, closed adoption, marriage, single-motherhood.
I did have one major reservation walking out of the theater. SPOILER WARNING. Juno had invested herself enormously in the Lorings as the perfect couple and so when they split during the third act/trimester, Juno leaves behind a note the contents of which we don’t see. Then she gives birth and we find out at the very end that the note told the wife Vanessa “I’m still in if you are.” Which struck me then as unbelievable, given that Juno hit it off much better with the husband Mark than Vanessa, who’s portrayed as a bit of a Type-A bitch. I thought cynically that the film’s framing of her leaving the note and subsequent withholding until the very end was a way of deliberately making it easy to alter the ending (“what Juno does with the baby”) in response to test screenings — only one scene and one other shot would have to be altered to have Juno keep the baby, or give it up to another couple or give to the husband.
Then a couple of days later at work, my sportswriter friend Tim Lemke told me that he and his wife Rebekah had seen JUNO and wanted to know if I had. We exchanged opinions, agreeing that it was a very good film, but then I stated my reservations about Vanessa getting the baby. Tim told me he kinda had the same reaction but his wife had exactly the opposite one. Rebekah detested the husband, as a semi-adolescent still ducking responsibility and fantasizing about becoming a rock star, and thought Juno did the only thing she could — give the baby to the one of the couple who actually *wanted* to be a parent, whatever her personality flaws.
And at that, my objection to the end melted away. Not simply in “makes more sense” terms, but also because it enriched the film thematically. If KNOCKED UP is about maturation in Seth Rogen’s character, then JUNO is about the same in Ellen Page’s. Yes, Juno wants to give the baby up to a perfect couple, and yes, the husband is “cooler” and is into Dario Argento and Sonic Youth, etc. But she has to “make a choice” (and not the choice of “choice” by then), and motherhood, even if only for nine months, made her realize that coolness isn’t the be-all and end-all.
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