Once Upon a Chair

I can’t pretend that I had the highest hopes for Jason Reitman’s new movie Juno. Its aesthetic looked a little too Wes Anderson for my tastes; I’ve had more than my fill of Anderson, and won’t even touch stylistic carpetbaggers … Read More

By / December 23, 2007

I can’t pretend that I had the highest hopes for Jason Reitman’s new movie Juno. Its aesthetic looked a little too Wes Anderson for my tastes; I’ve had more than my fill of Anderson, and won’t even touch stylistic carpetbaggers like Napoleon Dynamite. I saw Juno because I could watch Michael Cera play video games for 92 minutes and would still laugh myself to the brink of asphixia. Throw in Cera’s Arrested Development co-star Jason Bateman, as well as The Office’s Dwight Schrute (sorry, I can’t bring myself to learn his real and presumably less funny name), and I’m there with the proverbial bells on.

Juno confirmed many of my worries. From its cartoonish, quasi-rotoscoped opening credits to the Kinks song on the soundtrack to the indulgent final scene, the movie owes a great debt if not an apology to Wes Anderson. The wisecracking, allusion-laden dialogue is often hilarious, but leans more toward the Gilmore Girls than Judd Apatow end of the spectrum, by which I mean the viewer isn’t always convinced. Other than that, though, Juno was mostly pleasant surprises. (A spoiler for the noir-savvy: Seeing Bateman in his Juno role is nearly as jarring as seeing Jimmy Stewart in After the Thin Man.) Nevertheless, I’m unpleasantly surprised to find its most unambiguous message being ignored, or given a disappointingly cursory treatment, by some critics and commentators.

For Slate’s Ann Hulbert, for instance, the movie is all about declawing the family-values debate by having something for everyone, though the something is as often a question as an answer:

Her take on the roster of family values issues is as heterodox as her image. Consider her sendup of the term sexually active, a trope of the sex-ed wars. Liberal advocates of honest, open sexual communication with teens embrace the epithet as though it were part and parcel of puberty. Abstinence promoters invoke it as the plague to be avoided at all costs. For Juno, it’s ridiculous, an Orwellian phrase that in no way speaks to her actual experience (sex, once, in a chair)—as is surely true, when you stop and think about it, for the majority of high-school juniors who aren’t virgins.

The real flashpoint issue in the film, of course, could have been abortion. Here Cody’s politics (presumably pro-choice) are at odds with her plot needs (a birth) and, who knows, maybe commercial dictates, too, if studios worry about antagonizing the evangelical audience. It’s a tension the screenplay finesses deftly, undercutting both pro-life and pro-choice purism. . . .

With Juno as with Knocked Up, there has been an oddly protesting-too-much character to these reassurances that there’s nothing anti-abortion in the details. (Pay attention to the film’s repeated reminders that babies at X stage of pregnancy already have fingernails. And that Juno’s stepmother runs a nail salon. What’s it all mean?) I can’t help wondering whether Hulbert’s assertion that screenwriter Diablo Cody’s politics are “presumably pro-choice” has anything to do with her comment, earlier in her essay, that Cody is a former stripper, which is misleading. She’s in fact a well-educated Midwestern writer who took up stripping for a while and also blogged about it. There are enough contradictions in that history to make Cody’s politics, as well as her intentions, anybody’s guess.

But it’s a mistake to think that teen pregnancy or abortion are Juno’s biggest questions. The “unambiguous message” I mentioned earlier is that adulthood is, to some extent, a state of mind, not an age. Diablo Cody’s genius is to take something that we’ve come to regard as an unthinkable, insurmountable tragedy—a pregnant teen! the stuff of Lifetime movies!—and to wonder if maybe we don’t feel that way because we’re not really behaving like grown-ups ourselves. Juno handles her situation with more intelligence, aplomb, and, above all, imagination than just about anyone else in her orbit. The unthinkable is the difficult but also the historically and statistically mundane, and she seems to understand this. A. O. Scott gets it, too, but before you know it he’s back to condescending to the littluns:

Juno also shares with Knocked Up an underlying theme, a message that is not anti-abortion but rather pro-adulthood. It follows its heroine—and by the end she has earned that title—on a twisty path toward responsibility and greater self-understanding.

This is the course followed by most coming-of-age stories, though not many are so daring in their treatment of teenage pregnancy, which this film flirts with presenting not just as bearable but attractive. Kids, please! Heed the cautionary whale. But in the meantime, have a good time at Juno. Bring your parents, too.

Like Scott, I don’t want to say, “Three cheers for teen pregnancy!” I want to look at the movie allegorically, as a reminder that we’re adults as soon as we decide to be. That’s why one of the best lines in the movie is one of the least memorable, the least scripted, and it’s Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) to her would-be rock star husband Mark (Jason Bateman): “Your t-shirt is stupid. Grow up.”

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