could well be described as a comic, quirky, coming-of-age story like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE
(2004): a low-budget hit also featuring gawky teens seeking love. But that resemblance is fleeting. A better comparison is to the 2006 Oscar winner for best original screenplay,
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, a paean to real family values: sticking together and supporting one another, even through dark periods and pipe dreams, hard knocks, and hopeful goals. In its own sometimes glib, sometimes profound way,
JUNO similarly reaches into the well of human psychology to explore our most primal desires for love and security. It ultimately is a commentary about the grace of unconditional love.
There’s a lot to embrace in
JUNO, with terrific performances all around and a fresh and funny screenplay by Diablo Cody (who so far has won 16 major writing awards, gotten an Oscar nomination and earned two other noms for it). While the plot arc is defined by the parameters of the unfolding pregnancy of 16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), little else is predictable.
MacGuff is an unlikely ingénue, a petite, Converse-clad teenager with an untidy ponytail. She attracts men with a combination of truly natural beauty and childlike transparency, mixed with nonconformist wit. Paulie Bleeker, played by Michael Cera (SUPERBAD,
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT), the sweetly nerdy teen who’s the slightly bewildered father of her baby, doesn’t know how to respond when she tells him she’s pregnant, and he throws the decision entirely into her soon-to-disappear lap.
From left: Michael Cera and Ellen Page in JUNO
From left: Allison Janney, Ellen Page, and J.K. Simmons in JUNO.
Her dad, Mac, played by J.K. Simmons,
(SPIDER-MAN, OZ, ARRESTED
DEVELOPMENT) and stepmother Brenda (Allison Janney of HAIRSPRAY and
THE WEST WING) are supportive and kind, and if they’re disappointed they don’t show it—much. In the scene where Juno reveals she’s just learned she’s pregnant, Mac can’t resist a swipe: “I didn’t think you were that kind of girl.”
“I don’t know what kind of girl I am,” she responds.
What she grows into is a girl capable of commitment and courage. Her ultimate choice to go through with an “old school” closed adoption is evidence, even if it does seem anachronistic in an era of open adoptions, de-stigmatized single parenting, and the availability of legal abortion.
Back in my day (almost 30 years ago), it was quietly understood that a high school- or college-aged girl who suddenly went off to “recuperate from mono” or “attend art school” was in fact going to spend a few months at a home for unwed mothers and would probably be back at school about a semester later. I have to imagine that Diablo Cody’s own Catholic school upbringing inspired this plot. Indeed, conventional Catholicism condenses women’s roles into a Madonna/Mary Magdalene dichotomy, and former stripper Cody seems to have absorbed some of each in her own life. But she’s taken it a step further by examining what the world looks like when women themselves get past these stereotypes and support one another.
Juno, named for the Roman goddess, holds her own dignity in both the pantheon of high school hallways and in negotiations with Mark and Vanessa Loring, played by Jason Bateman
(TEEN WOLF TOO, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) and Jennifer Garner (DAREDEVEL,
ALIAS), prospective adoptive parents from Palatial Estates, a beige subdivision that’s ironically sterile if exceedingly comfortable.
Page deftly balances Juno’s precociousness with credible adolescent vulnerability and just the right shade of teen self-absorption. “How far along are you?” ask the Lorings at their first meeting with Juno, wanting to know, of course, how far along her pregnancy is. “I’m a junior,” Juno replies. Page’s subtle expressions are worthy of a Jane Austen protagonist—she can convey hurt, yearning, anger, and determination in about three seconds, without words.
From left: Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, and Ellen Page in JUNO.
A cheer for the positive women’s relationships portrayed: Juno’s cordial-but-not-tight relationship with Brenda permeates the “step” barrier, as Brenda capably steps in and advocates for Juno, whether it’s to chew out a judgmental ultrasound technician or to caution her against Mark Loring’s easy crush. We can be pretty sure that although Juno’s best friend, cheerleader Leah (Olivia Thirlby), wouldn’t make the same choice to give birth, she supports Juno’s decision without second guessing. And while Juno and Vanessa dance around each other’s different styles, they arrive at respect and gratitude for one another, enabling a truly life-giving partnership.
Some minor criticism: Few teens I know could carry off Juno’s clever one-liners with such aplomb. And while I suppose cell phones and iPods are aesthetically problematic, no teenager I know leaves home without them; but those electronic devices were entirely absent here. Such quibbles, however, are far overshadowed by what’s right about this movie: spot-on performances by every actor and a screenplay that’s funny and poignant without wallowing in overt sentimentality.
The climactic scene, in which Juno finally gives birth—and especially the moments afterwards, when the true impact of her choice is felt—is as deeply moving a film moment as I have witnessed, perhaps all the more because I am close to women who made the same choice in similar circumstances.
This film succeeds in creating common ground between unlikely bedfellows. Right-to-life advocates and unapologetic feminists should agree that Juno does the right thing, whether because adoption wins the day over abortion, or because this young woman actually has a viable choice, and her decision is entirely her own—but she’s not alone in her choice.
Kris Berggren is a columnist and contributor to
NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER and MINNESOTA PARENT and writes for other online and print publications. Her entirely subjective list of favorite feel-good films includes but is not limited to
MARY POPPINS, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, IT’S A WONDERFUL
LIFE, STRANGER THAN FICTION and the A&E version of
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. She lives in Minneapolis.