Sunday, January 06, 2008

REVIEW - Juno: The Case For Common Ground

Juno, set in suburban Minnesota, is ultimately about family in the same way that other quirky hits like “LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE” or even “THE BIRD CAGE” was. These were movies that dealt with off beat topics, even taboo topics but were ensconced in the cloak of family to give them big laughs and great pathos. Given the subject matter of Juno, however, (a 16 year old – Juno - becomes pregnant and must decide what to do with the baby) I was pleasantly surprised that it is above all else a feminist film. It might not seem like this would be the case given that Juno (Ellen Page) decides to have the baby and give him up in a closed adoption to a yuppie Minnesotan couple (Jason Bateman as Mark and Jennifer Garner as Vanessa).

The film has received raves for its smart dialog and odd asocial characters, but this I think works against the film’s real depth and heart which is, of course, Juno’s discovery that adulthood means making painful decisions and then sticking by them, even when most adults don’t behave this way.

It is thoroughly refreshing to see her supportive family (played brilliantly with the right mix of humor, cynicism and “I-know-better-than-you-because-I-have-lived-longer-than-you” wisdom provided by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) who when being told of her pregnancy by Juno originally suspect the worst: failing in school, or stealing a car, never considering for a moment that their little girl could be pregnant. I am not sure there are many families whose parents would have responded as supportively as Juno’s does, but that’s okay. I like this about this movie. Personally, I think it’s high time that our culture portrays families as supportive institutions and not just the source of all the dysfunction therapists everywhere are exposed to. As parents, we don’t have to approve their actions, but we do have to love and support them and this movie provides that sort of safe haven feeling that is family.

Where the movie fails for me is that the dialogue is smart- very smart, in fact, too smart. It is easy to see why the teenagers and twenty somethings love this movie. I was in a theater where the crowd was predominantly the Facebook/MySpace group and the points in the movie where they laughed confirmed for me who the target audience was. Teens and twenty somethings are all about the quick snip, appearing smart rather than being smart; appearing counter-cultural all the while being absorbed into the MTV/corporatized version of what being “counter-cultural” means. The banter was too acerbic, too quick witted for my taste, but the kids in the theater I was in loved it. Subtlety is not a teen-ager’s long suit so the dialogue may seem a bit juvenile for adult tastes. But while the humor may be puerile, the heart of this movie is as subtle as a Minnesota snowflake and that should appeal to the most cold hearted of adults.

The decision Juno makes at the end of the movie is heartrending and should provide ample evidence for those looking for a moral that getting pregnant at 16 is just not a good idea (don’t try this at home kids!) Some people look for that sort of lesson in order to redeem the somewhat controversial subject matter. Juno provides this without being preachy or overbearing. For those who like to revel in the humanity of such dilemmas that make us human, this movie provides that as well. The relationship between Juno and her friend Bleeker (Michael Cera) is froth with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the age. (Cera is brilliant at doing this both in works like SUPERBAD and his work on the TV series ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. ) There is no overt passion in the act they do that gets Juno pregnant, it is adolescent experimentation brought on by boredom and curiosity. Throughout the movie, Bleeker struggles within himself to do the adult thing and step up, but he can’t. He learns that while he is physically ready to father a child, he is not emotionally ready.

Bleeker’s estrangement from his own manhood tears at his sensitive relationship with Juno, evoking feelings for her that he has to hide for fear of being rejected. (And what adolescent hasn’t done that, I ask you.) Ironically, we see the adolescent Bleeker finally come to terms with his own masculinity, and supports Juno, while the only other non-parental male in the movie – Mark (Jason Bateman) flees his responsibility to grow up, to love something outside of himself and his own dreams of glory as a former rock’n’roller. Bleeker respect Juno’s decision, acknowledges that he really does love her – and she, finally, him - and supports her after her delivery when she gives the baby up. (A man supporting a woman’s right to have the baby – when have we ever seen this? Isn’t it usually the guys badgering the woman to “get rid of the thing”, if they are even involved at all?)

This is the reason I say this movie is one of the few truly feminist films of the era. It respects Juno’s choice to have the baby, and to give him away, as hard as that is. It bypasses the danger of romanticizing another single pregnant teen, raising a baby by herself. Another woman’s choice might have been different. But Juno’s choice is one she comes to on her own.

Vanessa learns that Mark really doesn’t want a baby and by the end of the movie Vanessa and Juno find common ground: both become single mothers as Mark and Vanessa divorce. Juno’s choice is to affirm the strength of women to raise children alone, even though she is not capable of such a thing. The movie deftly avoids the abortion polemic by satirizing both pro-life and pro-choice factions. Juno’s Korean friend stands outside the abortion clinic alone holding a sign chanting: “All babies want to be borned”. When Juno gets inside the clinic, she is greeted by a cavalier, face pierced, gum-snapping receptionist who smugly offers her flavored condoms. Juno flees the clinic, repulsed by the callus atmosphere.

In the end, she has the baby because of the realization that it has “fingernails”. On the surface, this appears part of a pro-life agenda point, but feminism has always been about a woman’s right to decide for herself. We are all free moral agents and as such we should be free to make our own mistakes or successes. In this way, the feminist struggle is akin to the fight to abolish slavery in the middle of the 19th century. If all teenage girls are “supposed” to have abortions where is the choice in that? How is that supporting a woman’s right to choose? A culture that respects women ultimately respects the very personal choice to have a baby, to get pregnant in the first place. In this way, Juno should provide common ground for both pro-life and pro-choice factions. There are no men in this movie pressuring Juno into having an abortion.

The movie works for adolescents because it brings the smarm that marks their generation (okay, the same smarm that worked for my generation and I suspect all adolescents since recorded history.)

But the movie is sweet, and heartfelt too. It provides an affirming message to women of all ages. It gives us a model of how parents are supposed to act with their wayward kids. It treats young pre-adult kids with an adult sense of respect, all the while engaging in the travails and triumphs of growing up. It is a coming of age movie that poses some very hard questions about what we value and why.

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