The Movies: Looking back on ... Juno

Don't bother looking for Signs or Significance!

By Geoffrey Dow
Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally posted at Edifice Rex Online

'Well, you know, I just — I was thinkin' that I'd just nip it in the bud. Before it gets worse. 'Cause they were talkin' in health class about how pregnancy can lead to ... an infant.'

Catching up on ...

Ellen Page in 2007 (image Wikipedia).

It's not giving much away to say that Juno MacGuff does not nip her pregnancy, "in the bud" or otherwise. Instead, after a brief flirtation with abortion, the 16 year-old opts to carry the foetus to term and give the baby up for adoption. Significantly, Juno is not punished for her transgression (except insofar as the pregnancy itself meet be considered a punishment) persons seeking in the entrails of Juno any overt anti-abortion, pro-choice, pro- or anti-sex or other coded messages are in for a serious disappointment.

The movie's eponymous title gives the game away.

Juno is a story about (nearly) a year in the life of a teenage girl named "Juno". It is not an issue movie, or a cautionary tale, or a call to arms. The fact that Juno is about a pregnant 16 year-old girl does not mean it is "about" teenage pregnancy.

At its heart and despite its subject matter, Juno is a romantic comedy. Where we might once have had Katherine Hepburn as a wise-cracking career-woman in a man's world, we now have Ellen Page as a wise-cracking teenager, who is every bit as independent as Hepburn ever was, if in a very different world.

'I don't really know ... what kinda girl I am.'

Juno poster
Written by Diablo Cody
Starring Ellen Page,
Directed by Jason Reitman, 2007

The film opens with our titular heroine chugging from a gallon jug of orange juice while on her way to the local drug-store, where she proceeds to await the results of her third pregnancy test of the day in the company of a sarcastic clerk and a random customer.

Juno accepts the verdict with a barely-credible aplomb and heads for home, fooling with a makeshift candy noose before going inside and calling her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby, excellent as the less mature but maybe more grounded side-kick). She decides she will abort the foetus and so informs the father the next morning, a scene in which both Page and Michael Cera as Paulie, are utterly convincing as frightened and vulnerable kids.

"Yeah, yeah, do whatever you think best," says Cera's Paulie, subtly radiating fear and confusion from beneath his facade of cool.

The decision not to abort after all, but to carry the foetus to term, is probably the movie's weakest point. The humour in Juno's interaction with the sole anti-abortion protester (who just happens to be a class-mate) and of her ultimate retreat from the clinic both seem forced. Fortunately, it is over quickly and without it there wouldn't be a movie — at least not this movie.

'Somebody else is going to find a precious blessing from Jesus in this garbage dump of a situation.'

Juno and Leah, doing what teenagers do.

Where you might expect a turgid morality tale or a dire warning about the perils of women's sexuality, this movie instead presents an eccentric but likable lead character who, in the best romantic comedy tradition, is mostly surrounded by an eccentric and likable supporting cast.

The scene in which Juno tells her father and step-mother (both characters ably underplayed by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, respectively) about her situation is played both for laughs and to show us that Juno's working-class family are no stereotypes. There is no yelling or screaming, just acceptance and parents who intend to stand by their "dummy" of a daughter no matter what.

From that point on, it's clear Diablo Cody's script isn't going to play down to a viewer's expectations.

What complications there are come courtesy of Juno's relationship with Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), whom she has chosen as the adoptive parents for her baby. Neither turns out to be the people Juno (or the viewer) first thought and it slowly becomes clear that their story will be nearly as important to us as Juno's own.

For a movie in which very little happens besides the slow growth of a foetus, Juno packs a large bundle of surprises, most of them having to do with what doesn't happen. Happily, even the romantic comedy's requisite happy ending works as a surprise and Cody doesn't cheat — the coda leaves us smiling but is open-ended enough to stay credible.

Happy ever after?

If there is a directly political or sociologically significant subtext to Juno, it is that individual choices matter and that it matters that individuals have choices. Juno's world is very much one in which a woman's control over herself is simply assumed. Juno consults her parents and Paulie about her choices and decisions but even at 16, no one really questions that they are her choices to make.

But to hell with subtexts. Juno is a romantic comedy about, and only about, a few individual characters who deal with a situation that would be a tragedy for many as merely "one of those things". If the viewer is meant to take away any lesson at all, it is probably only that life is full of solutions — and, maybe, that even a very young woman can and should take responsibility for her actions and live according to her values.