Director: Jason Reitman
By Roderick Heath
Queuing for Juno, I noticed that I was surrounded by mothers with Goth-tinged adolescent daughters dressed in 3-inch platform boots and multicoloured socks. I began to realise why the film I was about to see had been such a success. Actually viewing the film confirmed my suspicions. Juno presents a motor-mouthed young heroine (Ellen Page) with a love of punk rock and gory horror films who gets pregnant, but without being labeled as a slut, a tragedy in the making, or a symbol. Her working-class father and step-mother (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) are not crack addicts or rednecks, but rather kindly, witty people. Our heroine and her girlfriends lust after a wide variety of men without embarrassment, from the skinny twits of the school running team to Franklin “the hottie with polio” Roosevelt and the bearded, paunch-gutted science teacher. Finally, the young male protagonist, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), is a gentle-souled, bewildered creature rather than a perpetually horny jerkwad. In short, Juno pays attention to people, and especially young women, who very rarely see themselves in movies.
I was something of the Juno myself in high school—with obvious differences, of course. Thus, much to my surprise I came out of Juno admiring it. Even more pointedly, screenwriter Diablo Cody takes some delightful, much-needed potshots at tedious, official pieties and the overwhelming nature of modern newspeak, such as Juno’s inability to stomach the phrase “sexually active” or the idea that young single motherhood is necessarily a short cut to hell.
Juno has something to say that needs to be heard, which in the end, is what makes its shortcomings all the more egregious. Original as it might be in its spin on the situation it presents, and charming and funny as it is in spots, it is a rigorously unoriginal film, often twee, phony, and occasionally boring. It’s as brightly coloured, smooth on the palate, and nutrition-depleted as a double scoop of Rocky Road ice cream. Cody and Director Jason Reitman have thoroughly perused the handbook for creating an indie charmer. Smart-aleck dialogue perpetually infused with pop-culture obsession and ironic displays and reactions from unexpected characters. Wall-to-wall gee-tar strummin’ sing-songy folk music on the soundtrack. (If Wes Anderson has not yet begun his lawsuit, I urgently counsel that he does.) Pretensions to honesty by having sequences where people converse and nod with bewilderment and discomfort. This style of film making is becoming as formulaic and cliché-ridden as the studio material it was supposed to supplant.
Cody toys with taking a stand, but does not actually go anywhere, deflating both liberal and conservative agendas inherent in the tale. When Juno initially intends to obtain an abortion, she encounters one anti-abortion protestor at the clinic she goes to who proves to be her schoolmate Su-Chin (Valerie Tian), a bespectacled, comically awkward girl whose clumsy entreaty “Your baby has fingernails!” nonetheless hits its mark. But to make sure we know the film is not pumping some right-wing screed, it later serves up a grating moment when Juno’s stepmother Bren gives an ultrasound technician a tongue lashing when she says “Thank god!” on finding Juno is not going to raise the child herself. It’s obviously supposed to be a cheer-along scene for offended feminists and liberals, but is actually just hectoring and nasty, trying for a pay-off the film has not earned.
Most of the narrative is dedicated to Juno’s decision to give her child up for adoption to Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), an apparently prosperous middle-class couple. Mark used to be a rock musician and is subtly embittered at being reduced to keeping his comics collection in the basement, composing ad jingles for a living; he’s not nearly as enthused about becoming a parent as his brittle, desperately clucky wife. Juno strikes up a friendship with the boy-man Mark, hanging around with him, swapping loves in music and watching gore films together. But she soon finds herself disillusioned as Mark confesses to her that he wants to divorce Vanessa and return to his wannabe rock star life. It’s here that I found the film most interesting, these being the characters with the most actual conflict. Unfortunately, almost without exception, the film’s characterizations are one-note.
All this takes place in a spit-polished universe where stretch marks, breast milk leakage, welfare, and schoolyard taunts don’t occur—or if they do, they’re certainly off screen. Mark and Vanessa are canned types. To make sure we know Vanessa’s a ditzy bourgeois, attention is drawn to her fastidious dressing and her Pilates equipment, and the film wrings laughs out of the audience (at least the one I was with) in watching her girlish longing. Ah, that everyone could be as totally rad and cool as Juno herself, she who sits about mouthing essays that sound like they were composed by Village Voice writers. But the film has nothing actual to say about whether or not moneyed but emotionally retarded people make better parents than the young and goofy but well-loved. Juno skips around that question. Mark and Vanessa break up, but Vanessa still takes the baby, which, we are assured, will make her settle down and feel better.
There’s no gritty intimacy at all here, and most of the pregnancy gags were done better in sit-coms of years previous—which is basically what Juno is. I could see it being spun out into a long-running, well-loved TV show—“Juno and Friends,” or something, in which Juno tries to get on with her life but still has Vanessa leaning on her, with occasional guest appearances by Jason Bateman—wow, it’s 80s-rific already. Whilst lathering its audience with “nonconformist” sensibilities, Juno simultaneously avoids anything actually messy, uncomfortable, or edgy. The script toys with darker elements, such as preternaturally mature Juno’s almost-flirtatious relationship with Mark, but settles instead for giving us a conclusion where Juno and Paulie sit together strumming folk guitar together. Aw, ain’t that cute? Her sexual relationship with the barely characterized Paulie (perhaps unintentional revenge for all the sweet-nothing female romantic interests in cinema history) is so watered down it might as well be a virgin birth, despite the strained frankness of Juno admiring young joggers for their “pork swords.”
The dialogue has the self-impressed clip, hip, and attitude quotient of a 16-year-old girl’s blog writing, without the musicality and muscle that makes other purveyors of arch speech, like Tarantino and Mamet, work. It’s often funny, but in a highly facile fashion—at times, I questioned whether I really wanted to go on watching a film where people speak lines like “Honest to blog?” Many critics gave the film kudos for getting over itself and delivering emotion after all the wisecracks. But I was never convinced.
Worse, Juno is a precisely, preciously accessorized in a panoply of alt-culture checklist items. Multi-coloured socks. Classic Punk rock. Herschell Gordon Lewis. Sonic Youth. Hamburger-shaped phones. Paulie listens to Astrud Gilberto. How many teenage boys do you know who listen to Astrud Gilberto? Juno is like the preloaded iPod of movies. It’s self-referential smugness defined. Yes, indeed, pop culture is a modern form of communication between individuals, and though stylised, Cody’s presentation of the bonds it forms between people is relevant, but without any actual analysis. “Remarks are not literature,” Gertrude Stein famously told Hemingway. Someone should tell Cody the same thing.
Would Juno herself, I thought, actually watch this film?
If there’s a genuine quality to Juno, it’s the strength of the acting. Page is terrific at making her conceit of a character work, Simmons is one of the masterful comic actors of the age, and Garner is luminous, continuing her career of being the best thing about mediocre projects. Perhaps it’s just as well that Juno is what it is. If you only watched Larry Clark, Gus Van Sant, and Todd Solondz films (and their European counterparts), you’d come to the conclusion that modern teenage life is a Beckett-like wasteland inhabited by murderers, glue sniffers, and pedophiles. Proposing itself as raw realism, that tired ennui is as much of a put-on as Juno’s sunny glibness. Both varieties of teen experience attempt to gratify their audience in false ways: either fulfilling the desire in the audience to be riled, offended, to have their grimmer perspectives confirmed, or presenting a world as generally blithe as its main characters. Juno is something like wish fulfillment—not that there’s anything especially wrong with that.