Tuesday, January 15, 2008


The success of Juno (2007) owes to the characterizations, the excellent cast, the whimsical treatment of a serious subject, the direction, and the music. This film tackles a subject—teenage pregnancy—in a way that avoids almost all of the stereotypes and melodrama attached to the subject. It is a highly original film that is at the same time modest and under-stated. It makes Knocked Up look craven and amateurish.

The title character Juno is not a typical adolescent. She lives with her father and stepmother. Their laidback attitude towards parenting is in no way a negligent one. They are fully engaged parents. When Juno announces her pregnancy, their reaction (no yelling involved) is one of both concern and humor. Her stepmother Bren tells her father that she didn't know what to expect when Juno told them she had an announcement to make: "I was hoping she was expelled, or into hard drugs. . . anything but this." They prove to be nearly ideal parents in how they support their daughter during the ensuing months, though Juno thinks she can deal with her situation on her own. She greets the pregnancy as a major inconvenience, a problem, not a tragedy, that she confronts with practical resourcefulness. At first she considers an abortion and goes to a clinic for information, but then she abandons the idea. She decides to put the baby up for adoption. She never really considers keeping it because, as she readily admits, she is a teenager and not ready to be a parent. She puts an ad in the newspaper and makes contact with a couple looking to adopt. It's at this point she tells her parents.

Juno is witty in a way that many might find to be over the top and even irritating. She is always spouting sarcastic witticisms. She takes nothing seriously. She immediately starts making fun of the couple—Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) who have agreed to adopt her child—this is her manner, she expects them to understand, and they do to a point. What she doesn't understand is the adult world beyond and above her own experience, and here the real brilliance of this film kicks in. We appreciate Juno's iconoclasm and individuality while at the same time we recognize her naiveté and inexperience. These get her into trouble—the very traits she likes about Mark and Vanessa—the fact Mark has a separate room for his "gadgets," his apparent youthfulness and lack of interest in the things that normally interest adults—lead her not to recognize the hollowness of the marriage. She doesn't see the brittleness in how Mark and Vanessa interact, or the fact that Mark, who is intensely interested in Juno, isn't ready for parenthood.

Towards the end of the pregnancy, Juno begins to feel what it would be like to be the mother of the child she is about to bear. She doesn't relent in her determination to see the baby adopted by a worthy parent, but she does feel a sad and wistful regret over the inevitable course that events must take. She also discovers that she is not as self-reliant as she had thought, and this leads her back to her best friend Paulie, whom she had chosen to have sex with for the first time and who is the father of her child.

Paulie himself is an odd case. He's slight and fragile and otherworldly. When Juno tells him she's pregnant he reacts as if she has just told him it is raining. He never offers to help her or to be involved in the pregnancy, but she doesn't want his involvement. It becomes increasingly evident in the film that Juno regards Paulie as her best friend, but not as her boyfriend. She wants, she thinks, a different kind of person as a life partner, though she isn't really sure who. Paulie makes clear that he thinks of Juno as more than a best friend, but she never recognizes how he feels, or at least doesn't react to his weak efforts to tell her. (When Juno's father learns that Paulie is the father of her child, he quips that "I didn't think he had it in him.") Paulie's supporting role in the film keeps the focus on Juno. Her discovery that he is the person she really loves is part of her growth in the film.

When the film ends, we see these two together. There is no assurance they will remain so. The point of this conclusion is that Juno has learned about reasonable expectations. Her tendency to establish idealized and unreasonable goals caused her to misunderstand the man whom she had chosen to be the adoptive father of her child. She had also set as a goal having a happily married couple as the mother of her child—something of a contrast to her own experience with a birth mother who left her at an early age and who sends her a cactus every year on her birthday. Also an increasingly evident contrast in modern society. Reasonable expectations lead her to realize that the boy whom she had sex with for the first time is in fact the boy she loves. Reasonable expectations lead her to realize that her parents—her biological father and step-mother, however divergent from the idealized vision of the American family they may be—are the parents who have supported her and allowed her to become the person that she is. I wonder how younger viewers see these parents, how they see their own parents—as lovable but somewhat removed presences, there to help out on occasion, there to serve as unwieldy obstacles to be navigated around.

Despite her discovery that she needs other people, Juno remains always an individual, as do most of the teenagers in this film, as if they exist in a separate world from that of adults, a world into which the teenagers can cross on occasion, but from which the adults themselves can never escape.

The cast of this film is excellent. Ellen Page as Juno fully inhabits the character. It is difficult to imagine she exists outside the film as an actual human being. To put it differently, it is difficult to imagine that Juno is fiction and Ellen Page is real. Allison Janney and J. K. Simmons are fine as her parents, especially Janney. Michael Cera as Paulie Bleeker is appropriately passive. Juno is the center of the film. It is her story.

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