Wednesday, February 6, 2008
The movie Juno, as most of you know by now, tells the story of a high school girl who gets pregnant and has to decide what to do about it. She is headstrong and independent and on her own finds a couple to adopt the child in the Penny Saver, after a discouraging flirtation with abortion.
Juno's abortion clinic scene is controversial, and in the controversy I have noticed a generational split. My mother was pissed about it, and a friend of the family said that movies like this and Knocked Up were "playing into the hands of the right wing." Maybe. But, as I explained to this friend of the family, these movies were made by people in my generation, who, as children, were cannon fodder in the culture wars of the 70's. We were the casualties of the perfect storm created by the twin risings of the sexual revolution and second wave feminism. Mom was reading Betty Friedan while Dad checked out Penthouse, and at some point one of them needed to find themselves and/or get laid. The next thing we knew, we were sitting down for a talk about how Mommy and Daddy still loved us, and still cared about each other, but they were going to be living in different places now. Thirty years later, we're making movies like Knocked Up and Juno, if not The Squid and The Whale. Can you blame us?
The story is artfully told through Juno's eyes. My opinions of the characters changed with Juno's opinions. I laughed along as she derided her step-mother's career as a nail-technician, then grew to see how amazing her step-mother is, and how fierce, as does Juno. She goes from an adolescent belief that she knows exactly how everything works, to a surprised discovery of the true order of things: the "cool" people are rarely the ones you can count on when you do something stupid. Those lame people who plug away at their dumb jobs and plan for the future and talk about boring things are the ones who tend to be ready to throw down when things don't work out as planned. Juno's journey reminds us of that timeless truth.
Diablo Cody's narrative choice makes this movie difficult in the way that Huckleberry Finn is difficult. When Juno enters the abortion clinic, early in the movie, we get her take on the set up. The receptionist is a detached and nasty young hipster chick who treats Juno as an inconvenient interruption in her day. There is no support, no sisterhood, no guidance. I had to laugh, because I've had an abortion, and the receptionist at the Planned Parenthood was kind of like that. But I was older than Juno, and I knew the context: when you enter a women's clinic that performs abortions, you are entering a war zone. There are metal detectors, security procedures. I desperately wanted my partner in there with me during the procedure, or at least in the recovery room, but he wasn't allowed past the waiting room. Nobody was. We recovered and mourned alone, in a strange reverse image of a birthing celebration.
But I understood. This clinic was within two miles of the clinics whose friendly receptionists were shot and killed in 1994. Visitors rarely come to the receptionist first at a clinic anymore, they see the security guard, but a person has to be pretty stoical to sit there behind that reception desk these days. It's on the front lines in a protracted battle, and I knew that and could deal with it. When the doctor asked if I would allow residents to observe the procedure, I said yes, reminding myself that this moment in time was part of something larger, even though every bone in my body said no.
Juno doesn't know what I knew. She's a kid. She's still thinking she can do it all alone, just deal with the whole thing and move on. The clinic will be just another stop in her travels around the neighborhood. But when her schoolmate tells her that the tiny thing growing inside her has fingernails, it's like she stuck a knife in one of those Pilsbury biscuit packages: Juno's hard shell is ruptured, the soft, gooey stuff is pushing out through the seams. She enters the clinic in that state, and it bowls her over. She has no defenses against that tough, sad place; and I have no trouble believing that a clinic in her little town would be tougher and sadder than the clinic in my urban, liberal enclave.
Not that the rupture lasts for long, and I did have a little trouble buying Juno's character. She seemed like a bit of a fantasy to me, like an updated version of Jodi Foster in the Bad News Bears. I saw this film with the lovely and talented Diana Fisher, and as women who've given birth we both felt incredulous that Juno's would have such a lack of connection to what was going on inside her. And, despite the rave reviews, neither of us were terribly impressed by Ellen Page. As Diana put it "I felt like I was watching Ellen Page act the whole time." The truly brilliant performances in this were Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, who were so wonderfully subtle in their transformations, and Allison Janney, whose stepmother was the most grounded and complex of all the characters. Diana and I both found the father's character to be a bit unbelievable. Could he really be that detached about never seeing his grandchild again? There was some piece missing there, and it nagged at us. I did love him in the meetings with the adoptive couple, so clearly loving his daughter while guiding her through this difficult situation and wanting to throttle her and hug her at the same time.
If it is all through Juno's eyes, it would explain the missing pieces. Her father wouldn't burden her with his sadness, so she doesn't know about it. In her telling of the story, she might downplay any emotional connection she was developing with he baby growing inside her. Or maybe Diana and I just didn't get it. My mother was adopted, and when I was pregnant I thought a lot about my biological grandmother and how it must be to carry a baby to term knowing that you're going to give it up. Do you have to lock up those tender feelings in a little box until it's all over? I become sad to my very core thinking about it. It's something I chose not to do.
While writing this piece, I saw a friend read from his book on the Magdalen laundries in Ireland. I was reminded that it was not very long ago that a woman pregnant out of "wedlock" (an appropriate word for what the institution of marriage was for women at one point) was doomed to at best a life of shamed secrecy or, in many societies, a life of institutionalized isolation. Upon discovery of her fallen state, institutions would take over and determine the outcome. The most striking aspect of Juno - and its companion piece, Knocked Up - is that there is never any question that the pregnant woman gets to decide her own path. We may not like their choices as an audience, but we can not dispute that they make the choices themselves. The societal shift is astounding.
I liked Juno. It had its problems. When it was over, Diana and I found that we both wanted to prevent our daughters from seeing it until they were long past adolescence. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Is it the best of the five best picture nominees? I don't know yet. I'll keep you posted.