Written by: Ron Bricker
When I went into a screening of Juno last week in New York City, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew little about the movie, except that it centered around a pregnant teenager who decides to give her baby up for adoption and that the skinny, awkward kid from Superbad was in it.
Juno’s premise is simple: Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), a witty, sarcastic sixteen-year-old, becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with her sweet-but-geeky best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, the aforementioned Superbad alum). Her father and stepmother (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) are understandably unnerved when Juno gives them the news, but admirably, they restrain themselves and try to support their daughter when she decides to give the baby up for adoption rather than have an abortion. The picture-perfect adoptive parents, Vanessa and Mark (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) charm Juno immediately, but just as quickly the cracks in their façade begin to show. It doesn’t sound like much of a plot. But what I discovered after watching the movie was a sweet story that refuses to be schmaltzy, a funny movie that refuses to be obscene, and a movie about teenagers that refuses to be pigeonholed as a “teen” movie.
It may be simplest to describe Juno by explaining how it differs from other teen movies. When I watched the movie, I was expecting one of two things: either an “issue” movie, or a silly teen comedy about sexual escapades or romantic longing. (The plot doesn’t naturally lend itself to this type of film, but the Superbad connection left me wondering. Plus, last summer’s hit comedy Knocked Up integrated raunchy comedy with a similar plot, albeit with adult characters.) Juno is neither of these things.
Many teen movies (most recently Superbad, but also American Pie, Weird Science, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, among others) use the average teen’s obsession with sex to propel the plot. The main character’s goal is usually to get laid, and the plot centers around his/her (usually his) quest to do so. The female equivalent substitutes (usually unrequited) romantic longing for sex (see Never Been Kissed, Say Anything, and just about any Molly Ringwald movie besides The Breakfast Club). Anyone expecting a variation on this type of film will be disappointed. The sex happens before the movie begins and is seen only in brief flashbacks that are more awkward than erotic. And while it’s established almost immediately that Cera’s character is the father of Juno’s unborn child, she doesn’t spend the movie doodling his name in her notebook and imagining their future marriage. Instead, Juno and Paulie’s friendship is strained by her pregnancy, and Juno spends much of the movie innocently hanging out with Mark, the hesitant adoptive father who shares Juno’s love of music and horror movies. And while this leads to some uncomfortable scenes between Page and Bateman, the film never wanders into Lolita territory.
The teenage pregnancy theme also evokes memories of a 1980s After School Special or any Lifetime movie ever produced—otherwise known as the “issue” movie. If Juno were one of those movies, her parents would have cried, screamed, and vowed to disown Juno when she told them of her pregnancy. Instead, they remain in stunned silence as she tells them she’s going to put the baby up for adoption. After she leaves the room, her stepmother states dryly, “I was hoping she was expelled, or into hard drugs.” Her father responds, “Or DWI…anything but this!” If this were an issue movie, Juno would have locked herself in her room, began drinking or doing drugs, or attempted suicide when she found out about her pregnancy. Instead, she goes to school, weathering the stares of her classmates with sarcasm, not self-mutilation. Juno never tries to turn its protagonist into a warning symbol of what teenage debauchery can bring, but Juno does not emerge from her experience totally unscathed, either. While the film doesn’t downplay the consequences—especially the social ostracism—of Juno’s pregnancy, it doesn’t try to make the situation grimmer than it really is.
The film’s humor also makes it stand apart from the pack of teen-themed films. Most movies revolving around a subject like teen pregnancy completely lack humor. (When was the last time you saw anyone crack a joke on Lifetime, other than in “Golden Girls” reruns?) Yet Juno’s pregnancy is handled with wry, witty dialogue. Page gets many of the best lines, but the supporting cast gets its fair share. At one point in the film, when Juno’s pregnancy is nearly full-term, her father zings, “Hey there, big puffy version of Junebug!”
All of the actors are excellent, but the real standout of the cast is Page. As Juno, she wavers seamlessly between beyond-her-years wisdom and youthful naiveté, perfectly capturing that time in every teenager’s life when you think you know everything, until you slowly realize that just the opposite is true. She is sweet and genuine without being cloying, and she never loses the jaded edge that makes her such a unique character.
When you combine all these elements together, you have a movie that realistically and sympathetically depicts a teenager dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. This is a film that doesn’t shy away from the consequences of Juno’s actions—both negative and positive—yet somehow, in the face of all that, it manages to remain hopeful. I have yet to see another film—“teen” movie or otherwise—pull off that kind of message, which is how Juno excels.