Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Juno -- Celebration of Life

Juno is a teen high-school movie that is intelligent and funny. Not only does it play well to teens, it crosses generational lines. That is probably why it was the highest grossing film of all five Best Picture Oscar nominees, even though it lost to No Country for Old Men.

Juno is the story of a 16 year-old girl who is quirky and quick-witted, who follows her own lead not others. Named Juno after the Roman goddess of marriage she is not ready for marriage, though she finds herself pregnant after a one-time, in-chair sexual encounter with best-friend (but not boyfriend) Paulie Bleeker. The movie starts and ends with a chair scene, symbolizing the dual beginnings of life at conception (in the womb) and birth (into the world).

When Juno finds out she is pregnant, she doesn't know what to do. Turning to her closest girlfriend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), her immediate advice is to get a hasty abortion. That is the "usual way" to deal with the inconvenience of a growing, but unwanted fetus. But when Juno goes to the clinic she is confronted by school acquaintance Su-Chin, who is a Christian picket. Su-Chin tells her "babies have fingernails," and when she goes into the waiting room all she can see and hear are fingernails. It is this, rather than moral conviction, that gets her to consider the reality of growing life. And she decides not to abort. Instead, she will give the baby up for adoption.

First, though, Juno must tell her parents. In a poignant scene, she dances around the subject before finally blurting it out. Her dad Mac (J.K. Simmons) says to her stepmom Bren, "did you see that coming?" Bren replies, "Yeah . . . but I was hoping she was expelled, or into hard drugs." Mac: "That was my first instinct too. Or a DUI . . . anything but this." If anything, they took it harder than Juno, who pragmatically deals with the situation as though it were simply a broken leg.

The lucky couple are Mark and Vanessa Loring (played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, who starred together in the 2007 movie The Kingdom). He is a laid-back music composer while she is an uptight professional. When Mac and Juno meet the Lorings, Vanessa asks, "So . . . . How are we going to do this?" To which Juno replies, " What do you mean,? Don't I just have the thing? Squeeze it out and hand it over?" The dialog is first-rate all the way through, and so fast and deadpan that you have to listen to hard to catch all the nuances. Indeed, it is for this reason that Juno won the Oscar for Best Writing and Screenplay (for Diablo Cody).

JUNO Olivia Thirlby as Leah and Allison ...Juno's strengths are its unconventional storyline and its leads. Ellen Page is simply terrific as Juno and she has excellent chemistry with Michael Cera, as Paulie Bleeker, as well as with her supporting actors (Allison Janney is spot on as stepmom Bren). In the delivery scene, Page looks as though she is actually delivering a baby; this is one of the most realistic childbirth scenes I have ever seen.

Two additional scenes standout. Early in the movie, we see Juno at school walking the hallway. She is walking against the stream of the other students. This gives us the message that Juno walks upstream; she is no lemming, she is her own person, even at her tender age. Later, we see an almost identical hallway scene. This time, however, she is obviously pregnant. Whereas before, the other students simply ignored her, now they look at her aghast with disdain. Such reactions are so typical when confronted by teen pregnancy. The looks are almost condemning, and we can almost feel Juno's exclusion and isolation. The other students can hide behind their facades of "goodness" but Juno's sin is visibly apparent. Yet, she still walks her own path and does not give in to peer pressure.

Juno is a refreshing movie. After seeing the Oscar nominees, such as No County and There Will be Blood, this seems very light, yet there is a depth that is not immediately obvious. The director, Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman who produced the superficial comedy Ghostbusters), could have taken this a typical Hollywood route, with syrup and a "happily ever after" ending. But he didn't. He took us on a journey with unexpected twists that is much more satisfying because it feels like real life. And it validates and celebrates real life.

This is a film with a strong redemptive message. Conception begins life, even in the womb. The life of the fetus in the womb is the life of a small person, growing to term. And it is not necessary to terminate the beauty of life via abortion. Life is much more precious than that. Life is to be enjoyed and allowed to bloom. Life is to be celebrated.

One other powerful message is about humanity and love. In a dialog with her dad, Juno says, "I'm losing my faith in humanity. . . . I guess I wonder sometimes if people ever stay together for good. . . I just need to know if it's possible for two people to stay happy together forever, or at least for a few years." To which, Mac replies, "It's not easy, that's for sure. Now, I may not have the best track record in the world, but I have been with your stepmother for 10 years now and I'm proud to say that we're very happy. In my opinion, the best thing you can do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person will still think the sun shines out of your ass. That's the kind of person that's worth sticking with." There is hope. Though the world will say marriage is only a 50:50 bet these days, Juno says there is hope if we find the right person. And that person will love us no matter what. Marriage is tough, but it is beautiful. It is worth all the work. And when we find the right person, we also need to be that right person, so we stick with our mate, no matter what. This mirrors the biblical ethic of marriage.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs



    The first thing I ever heard about the movie Juno was that it had a great pro-life message because the girl gives the baby up for adoption instead of aborting. I thought to myself, “Great! Thanks for giving away the ending! No sense in watching it now.”

    But the other night my wife and I rented it and I realized that Juno’s pregnancy was not the main point of the movie. Her pregnancy only forced her to deal with the real question she had. Juno’s question is where we find the message of the movie.

    The message of a movie can often be found by asking yourself what is the one question that the movie is really asking. How the movie answers that question is the message of the movie. In Juno, the main question being asked was not whether she would abort the baby. Juno decided early on not to abort. Her real question was this: does real love really exist? All around Juno were screwed up relationships. Her own parents were divorced. Her dad’s new relationship with Brenda was hardly a model she wanted for her own life. Juno herself was no good at relationships. Her friends were no help. In fact, she did not have any role models of a couple who was happily in love. She wanted her baby to go to the “perfect” couple. She thought she found that couple in Mark and Vanessa who were happily in love only to have that perception destroyed as well.

    After witnessing Mark and Vanessa’s break-up, Juno loses her faith in humanity. She goes to her dad and says she needs to know whether it was possible for two people who were in love to stay happy together forever. This is Juno’s question and this is the question that the movie is asking us as the audience to consider as well. The answer is found in her dad’s answer when he says that it’s not easy but that the trick to staying happy is to stick with the person who loves you for exactly who you are. Here we find the message of the movie. The secret to staying happily in love, even though it’s not easy, is to be with the person who loves you for exactly who you are.

    Juno wanted her baby to go to someone who would truly love it. She wanted the baby to be with someone who would love it no matter what. She found that quality in Vanessa. But the point of the movie was not whether Juno would find a loving mother for her baby. The point of the movie was whether Juno herself would find real love, especially since she was a pregnant teenager. In the end, what Juno realized was that real love was in front of her the whole time. Even though their relationship wasn’t normal, Bleeker was the one who loved her for exactly who she was and she realized she loved him.

    If you have any doubts that the message of the movie is about finding real love, did you notice that the final song playing during the credits contained the lyrics, “now that we’ve found love what are we gonna do?” Juno found real love. But now what? A good conclusion to a movie will only give you a glimpse of what the future might look like. But we never know for sure. What will become of Juno and Bleeker? Will they remember that the road is not easy? Will they remember to accept each other for who they really are? Will this young couple in love remain happy over the years?

  2. Ryan,

    This is a very insightful comment. Thanks for leaving it!