Saturday, November 20, 2010

JUNO (2007): The Pregnant Super Hero

I suspect that any heavy-handed criticism of Juno will be treated with the same kind of scorn usually reserved for those who kick sick puppies.  The movie and its formidable star, Ellen Page, have turned a five or six million-dollar investment into about one hundred million dollars in revenue at the box office.  So what is someone supposed to say about phenomena so precious?  Probably little else than to give it the lightweight treatment that it deserves.
Though I give away spoilers all the time, I don’t think it will surprise anyone about giving away sixteen-year old Juno’s pregnancy.  Juno wasn’t the type who slept around. She tried sex once and found herself missing her period.  Hollywood for some reason has trouble with portraying an adorable nymphomaniac; so even having sex once without a condom will usually get the lead actress into trouble.  At least Juno made the right choice of individuals to have sex with.  The father of the child, Paulie Beeker (Michael Cera), is an awkward and non-menacing lad – the same age as Juno – with the blonde curly hair that middle-aged women find irresistible.  He’s otherwise a well-behaved teenager who runs cross-country and track, likes to play guitar duets with Juno, and seems never quite sure what to make of his new fatherhood.  Paulie obviously cares for Juno.  Juno is also fortunate to have enlightened parents who probably deal with their daughter’s unwanted pregnancy in as an appropriate manner as is possible.  Juno’s father (J.K. Simmons) was a former military man now turned HVAC repairman.  Juno’s stepmother (Allison Janney of West Wing fame) is a nail technician.  Their attitude towards Juno’s pregnancy is one almost uncomfortably tolerant.  In fact, Juno’s father seems more surprised that the father is Paulie, who her father didn’t know “had it in him,” than the fact that Juno is pregnant at all.
Juno and Paulie agree that obtaining an abortion might be the best option.  However, in discussing this, we can see right away that neither is entirely comfortable with the option nor has really thought this matter out.  Juno goes to the abortion clinic and runs into its sole protester – a sweet and naïve young classmate of Juno who no one could ever imagine would plant a bomb and blow the abortion center up.  The protester mentions to Juno that the fetus growing inside already has fingernails.  Juno enters the center anyway, but immediately notices the fingernails of every person inside.  A rude receptionist with multiple piercings also greets Juno.  (Not that I’m suspicious of the moviemakers for their casting, but why is the one individual in the movie least likely to fit into conventional society given the role of a receptionist in an abortion center?)  Juno is so uncomfortable with being inside the clinic that she flees rather than go through with the procedure.
Through an ad in a newspaper, Juno learns of a wealthy couple that wishes to adopt a child.  The husband’s name is Mark (Jason Bateman) and the wife’s name is Vanessa (Jennifer Garner).  By Minnesota standards (where this movie takes place), the couple is obviously well to do.  Mark is a frustrated musician that makes money by composing commercial jingles.  Vanessa is a career woman who is obviously unhappy that she has never had a child.  At first, it seems like Mark is the saner of the two.  He connects with Juno at a more personal level, and he doesn’t seem as rigid as to how the soon to be born child should be raised.  This is mostly a façade.  The reason Vanessa seems more frightened concerning what needs to be done is because she is more serious of the two about the parenting role and truly does not want to make a mistake.  Mark at one point tells Juno that he is planning on leaving Vanessa and this greatly upsets the young girl.  At that point, we understand how seriously Juno has grown into her role as mother-to-be, and how important it is to her that the child should be brought up in a stable home.  Juno by then does understand how important this all was to Vanessa.  Juno has seen Vanessa at a mall playing with a niece, and she also observed Vanessa as Vanessa put her hand on Juno’s belly to feel the baby growing inside of her.  Juno thus is still willing to give Vanessa a chance to raise the baby alone, and it appears that Vanessa is willing to do her best to be a good mother.  The baby is then born, we see Vanessa holding a child, and then Juno and Paulie go back to playing the guitar together with the realization that they truly care for each other.
Juno is a nice movie. It’s funny and warm and makes us gush.  It’s only 92 minutes in length; though I thought it was a bit longer because it does at times drag.  This is only a minor complaint.  I do agree that the dialogue was exceptionally written.  Some critics have argued that the dialogue is just too clever for a sixteen-year old girl to have engaged in.  Certainly, Juno does not use the term “like” in every sentence, but I think it contains enough spontaneity to be believable in the mouth of a perceptive young girl.  Describing the dialogue as “hip” is a term that’s used too loosely by critics when discussing Juno.  We’re talking about a straight-laced girl that wasn’t even born until the early 1990s, not someone getting high in the hash joints with Ginsberg and Kerouac some fifty years ago.  I was surprised to hear the phrase “sucking face” coming out of the mouth of a teenage character since it was first used in a movie in 1981 with the release of On Golden Pond (another feel good movie).  Still, the dialogue has enough kick to shock an adult that has never watched an episode of Beavis and Butthead.
Roger Ebert penned my favorite line concerning the movie by saying: “The film has no wrong scenes and no extra scenes, and flows like running water.”  I’ll excuse the grandiloquence of this phrase because Mr. Ebert is not feeling well these days.  But what he sees as an attribute of the movie I could also see as a flaw.  The movie makes us laugh and does not make us think.  I disagree that the movie has no wrong scenes.  The scene inside of the abortion clinic was very wrong.  In a movie otherwise filled with sunshine, it depicts the abortion clinic as something dingy.  One could still be against abortion while depicting the people that worked inside the clinic as well-meaning individuals.  But other than this one discordant note, everything works out a bit too smoothly.  We have parents of the pregnant girl that are a bit too understanding.  We have a boyfriend that truly cares for the girl he has impregnated.  We have at least one caring and well-to-do person that wants to adopt the child.  The other would-be parent leaves the scene rather than participate in something that he is unready for.  We have a pregnancy that goes about as smoothly as is humanly possible.  We don’t have a girl on drugs that lacks access to resources to help her out.  Instead, we have a girl that is well cared for.  Really, there are no consequences in this movie.
Okay, I’ll quit kicking the sick puppy.  It’s a movie that will give some people a good excuse to laugh and cry.
Oscar Possibilities
Any suspicions of the movie industry being infiltrated by Communist sympathizers should be alleviated by the nomination of Juno for Best Picture by the Academy Awards Committee.  Juno is about as left leaning as Bob Dole (which will still be too much for some conservatives).  In fact, Pro-Life groups should be lobbying to have Juno shown in the auditoriums of every high school.  Yes, it does portray a child born out of wedlock, which the Family Values crowd would like to avoid.  And the dialogue would not get by the television censors, but it’s quite mild compared to the Rap music your children might be listening to right now.  By the way, the last important film to be released that I’ve seen that had true leftist leanings was Munich, and the same man who gave us E.T. and the patriotic Saving Private Ryan directed that.  And there’s no danger that Munich will be remembered or receive any cult following among those who rent DVDs, so we can forgive Spielberg for one time in his career trying to make a controversial point with substance.  (Lest I be misinterpreted as saying I espouse movies with leftist themes, my favorite movie of 2007 was Kite Runner, a movie that has rankled many liberals - so Left and the Right are fair game for scorn.)
Of the five movies up for Best Picture, I would rank Juno as number four – slightly behind Michael Clayton but vastly superior to the dull drama called Atonement.  As the attributes of Juno are almost entirely tied up to its star, Ellen Page, she at least should be considered a strong choice for Best Actress.  (If it instead goes to Keira Knightly, at that point I think Oscar should be decapitated.)  I rather hope the Best Screenplay award does not go to Diablo Cody (the former Striptease Artist) for Juno, though the dialogue is witty without sounding contrived (at least not contrived like the dialogue in Knocked Up).  Daniel-Day Lewis will probably win as Best Actor (there’s no leading figure in Juno to pick up this one), and the Coen’ brothers will probably take home the Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture for No Country For Old Men - Jason Reitman of Juno probably did an adequate job, but should not be seriously considered for either Best Picture or Best Director Oscars for Juno.  (I was about to say, does anyone care about the remaining Oscars?  But once I let that question out God only knows what kind of response I will get.)
February 12, 2007 
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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