Sunday, January 20, 2008

My Juno rant

Everything about me wanted to like Juno. And I left the theater a bit uplifted, and rather happy that I spent an hour and forty-five minutes at the movies, but I was not sure if I liked the overall tone movie. The acting was great and it showcased a side of humanity not normally seen on screen, the forgiving, quick witted non-smarmy kind. While Juno obviously held disdain for much life had to offer, she was not a single serving of angst plated over easy. While her despondent movie brethren often look down upon everything with equal sense of near entitlement, Juno seems to accept that which comes to her, not necessarily liking it, but accepting it. There is little fight in her towards the things she can not control. In this, she is not apathetic like the kids in River's Edge, but just has a better understanding of the world than most 16 year olds. And while the film seems to be about her unplanned pregnancy, it seems far more about the way she is able to plug in with that which surrounds her.

From the very start of the film we see her charting the territory that that surrounds her from "the most magnificent discarded living room set" she has ever seen to the animated environs that show her suburban town. At first it is a bit off putting to watch Juno step onto the 4 color palate of a comic book, but this is the first hint that while the following story seems real, it is as fake as any global disaster than only Superman can deflect. Yet at the same time it shows how Juno traverses the world on her own terms. The realms and facts of everyday life need not concern her, which we can see as she pops back into the real world and tries to deny the facts of two previous pregnancy tests. When asked why she needs a third test she replies: "I think the last one was defective. The plus sign looked more like a division sign. I remain unconvinced." So rather than accept the harsh reality of being another statistical teenage pregnancy, she tries to deflect away the facts with her wits and opens herself to a third possibility on her true/false baby exam. This is who Juno is, and she is presented in the most admirable way. And at this point I just knew I was going to love this film.

Yet, I sit here, after much thought, pretty much with only condemnation about it going though my head. Why? What about this film makes me so uneasy? Well for one thing, the whole film seems to be summed up in a montage of what Juno thinks a jock wants. It shows what the credits call 'Pretty-to-Goth Girl' morphing from preppy cheerleader to hot topic model extraordinaire. That is the whole movie, a pretty cheerleader film (read typical Hollywood popcorn movie) as "gothed out" (indie). The airs of the film all point to it being outside the mainstream, but it is just more of the norm masquerading in amazingly witty dialogue and longing for a more wholesome time of idealized family life, or "the way we never were."

This is nothing new, the co-opting of a genre to present the idealized status quo, but the marketing angle of this film makes this feel dirty beyond belief. The movie poster, with all its mismatched vertical stripes, is extremely bold and even uses a quote that calls the film "fresh". But again, this film is about as fresh as 3 day old popcorn at the modern multiplex. The marketing seems to try and recall the quirkiness of movies like Napoleon Dynamite. This points exactly to my first major issue with the film: its use of quirkiness as a substitute for real character or plot development. Yet the quirky, goofy look of the two main characters helps make them different enough to float out of the strata of a normative movie. And it is directly from the use of quirk as a point of reference rather than from direct character development that makes what was a promising premise fall to the depths Juno does.

And thus the my real loathing of this film begins. It dresses itself up in quirky colors and asserts its relevance to pre-packaged divergent culture with a classically indie rock soundtrack and Juno's acid tongued quips, but it exists really to embrace the idealized post WW II nuclear family structures. The script only pays lip service to family life outside the suburban norm. As Juno and her friend search through the penny saver to find adoptive parents, Juno longs to have her baby in a loving non-conventional home: "I was thinking I could give the baby to somebody who likes that kind of thing. You know, like a woman with a bum ovary or something. Or some nice lesbos." In fact this is the only time the movie even presents the idea of an alternative family. Everything else seems post war Eisenhowerian bliss in Juno's idealized suburban realm. In fact, the couple she decided to adopt out to lives an hour away, so not to distract with the lovely portraiture of the complacent suburbs Juno presents. And granted Juno still decides to give her child to the newly single Vanessa at the end of the movie, which I assume would have made Dan Quayle have an aneurysm if she was played by Candace Bergan, but this is the only time a family is allowed to be so ill defined in the film. And Vanessa is already damaged goods what with not being able to have a baby and all, though will likely be a loving mother.

How different is Juno from Cher from Clueless? Sure Cher is searching for clothes while Juno is seeking parents for her unborn child, but those are just plot conventions, they are both determining how to plug into their distinctive worlds. And while Juno does not demonstrate the obvious conspicuous consumptive power of Clueless, it does seem to be working towards a set of underground cool notes through Juno's cultural cache. From her arguments of 1977 being the best year for rock and roll to her off centered wardrobe, how many young women will begin to model themselves after her? In other words, Juno presents Juno as someone to emulate, and provides clues of what to buy to be more like her.

Juno is obviously a character to look up to, far better than the empty soulless teenagers portrayed on what was once the WB. But I have a major problem that not once throughout the entire film is she presented with a healthy response or option for birth control. While all characters seem to agree it would have been best for her to avoid the pregnancy from the start, the only time a condom is even mentioned is when Juno explores her options at the planned parenthood center clone. The abrasive desk clerk offers her a condom in a most uncouth manner:

Desk clerk: Would you like some free condoms? They're boysenberry.
Juno: No thank you. I'm off sex.
Desk clerk: My partner uses them every time we have intercourse. They make his balls smell like pie.

That is it. Condoms are treated as the entryway of a punch line. And while this could be interpreted as an astute commentary on abstinence only sex ed, there is far more at play here than just that. As aforementioned, Juno is an easy character to idolize. She is written in a way that many people wish they were, and I say the lack of any other mention of contraception is damn near criminal. The 16 year old girls that will look to her for inspiration should not have to look to her for sex ed, but that is the way of the world, and the creators behind this movie needed to address this issue. That they do not is as irresponsible as showing only angst driven complications Juno suffers from the pregnancy. They almost make pregnancy seem cool.

This brings me to another major theme that percolates under the surface throughout the movie, the issue of family structure. Juno's voice over at the beginning of the film really highlights this as she talks about how her mother left her and her father for New Mexico and had "three replacement children" and how she lives in a blended family with her father and step mom and their toddler, who says nothing the entire film. And this is a huge source of contention for me. From the film i know about four things about Juno's sister, she takes toddler ice skating lessons, over uses Ba-cos, is a scapegoat for Juno, and most importantly never speaks. She is much more a plot device than a person. Her presence is almost like a salve to prop up the fact that only families with children are real, that two married people, have to have at least a single child together to have any meaning. Just the thought of this convention drives me mad. That this hip script and film would seem to advocate for such a ill conceived notion of marriage boggles my mind. I expected far better of you Juno, far, far better.

Juno's main foil in this film is her Mother, who gave her up after knowing her, rather than right after she was born, never holding her in her arms. That we, the audience, never even see the mother, really shows how little actual drama is in the script. Sure there is the fact that Juno is pregnant and her navigating what that means to a 16 year old, but again this movie is far less about the pregnancy than about how quick Juno can spit out witty ephemera to polish the rusty rudder of her life. As the Pretty-to-Goth girl sequence really sums up the core essence of how this film presents it's self to the audience, Juno begins her decent back to a normal 16 year old, well non pregnant at least, by asking her father "I guess I wonder sometimes if people stay together for good... I just need to know that it is possible for two people to stay together happy forever. Or at least a few years." And so this takes us back to the moment of conception, as Juno figures out she loves Bleeker (and as much as I have harsh feelings towards much of this film, what a great name for this character), the father of her child. That even though a pregnancy has come between them, this is the real thing. And so we get the happy Hollywood ending to such an edgy film.

Wait, what? Every character seems to have what they crave at the end of the film, Juno and Bleeker are together, making music, Juno's step mother is loving on her dog, which up to this point was impossible due to Juno being allergic to dog saliva (did her pregnancy cure this allergy as well???), Vanessa has her child that she holds lovingly (it is a wonder that she was not shown walking off into the sunset pushing a stroller), her useless husband (soon to be ex) has his last chance at rock and roll fame and a loft downtown, Juno's dad is happy building model ships and that his daughter no longer resembles "a planet", as Juno once refers to herself. The only character that seem worse for the wear of the film is Bleeker's mom, who does not approve of Juno. How did a film with such a premise, that relied on such witty, tongue piercing dialogue reformat itself to a photo spread in Better Homes and Gardens or a Rockwell cover of the Saturday Evening Post? With the birth, even Juno's wit now seems to be absent. Love even conquers that? Color me unimpressed.

But I guess the major reason that I have major problems with this film is that even knowing all the above, I still quite liked parts of it. In other words, I took the bait and was hooked in like that first time someone puffs on a cigarette all the while reading the surgeon general's warning. Maybe it was not meant to be so vitriolic towards the culture it critiques behind veils. But the core of my emotional response to this film remains that I would like to think that my 16 year old self would be friends with Juno, or a reasonable facsimile of her. So rather than battle with my emotions (a never ending battle to be sure), I can say that I really enjoyed the notion of the film and felt a sort of kinship with Juno, but have a deep dislike for the puppet mastery behind the curtain trying to instill pre-packaged, pro-consumptive, normative values through a mural of self discovery. But I guess it is my fault to think that any romantic comedy could hold any sort of meaningful critique on society at large.

3 comments:

urbanmermaid said...

you've made me re-think the entire movie. as i mentioned in email to you, the only part that didn't ring true in the whole movie was the subplot with jason bateman's character. and now i realize it's because he's the one flawed person in the movie that keeps it from being a complete happy ending, in that nuclear family way.

i think one of the reasons i *did* enjoy the film was that it was a film about pregnancy that had nothing to do with the act of being pregnant. it was merely a backdrop, so your proposition that this movie is similar to clue is dead-on. it wasn't a movie to make you think, it was a feel-good popcorn flick with wittier dialog and more palatable characters.

you're right, the filmmakers co-opted things that appeal to my sensibilities - cool music, a kid i would have wanted to have been in high school, to take something mainstream and make it slightly more indie.

at any rate, thanks for making me think a wee bit more about this.

nadir said...

glad my rant provided a different perspective for you. and as for the jason bateman character subplot, i had to cut back my critique of him, as it overtook the more important points i had to make. lets just say, he played the uber-creep quite well. and made my knickers bunch up in many uncomfortable positions.

urbanmermaid said...

please note this was submitted to http://buzzfeed.com/buzz/The_Juno_Backlash