Tuesday, January 15, 2008

It's mighty cold in Juno

Juno, a review:

(note: the title of this session comes from a song I stumbled upon in the internet whose chorus was It's mighty cold in Alaska, but the location and author of that song are lost in the sands of my brain)

Juno, the main character of the film Juno, is not named after the city Juno, Alaska. She is as she points out in the film, named after Juno, queen of the Roman gods. It's a fitting name, because this film revolves around her in more ways than one.

Firstly, she is the star. It is Juno's unexpected pregnancy which the movie centers upon and while it takes two to have sex, Bleeker, her male partner stupendously played by Michael Cera, veteran of Superbad and Arrested Development, didn't really have a choice, as Juno makes clear to her friend later. Juno was just bored. Except even the passive partner in a relationship often has the oddest of effects on its course, and while this is Juno's story, at times it is also Bleeker's story.

Bleeker doesn't necessarily get too much screen time, but he has likely the 2nd most scenes, which show him as a devoted runner, a tic-tac addict, and a boy who's confused utterly by the world and most of all by the girl he likes. His reactions to Juno's pregnancy and Juno herself and his reactions to her reactions to him are subtle and wonderfully awkward, but they paint a deeply interesting and complex character, almost as well developed as Juno herself.

But as I said Juno is the star, and this film makes itself or breaks itself on her likability and depth. She is in 90% of the scenes (although not all of them), she gives narration, and she drives the action. But she is likable and her character is deep. She is utterly at ease with herself, and when she is not she vigorously denies that she is ill-at-ease. She is youthful looking (she doesn't wear a bra until her pregnancy) for 16, but maturely independent. Her interests in camp seem child-like but actually hold a very-teenagerish contempt for the world redeemed by a celebration of its ridiculous coolness. And she has the counterculture chique right down to the weirdo-hip language and the aloof disregard of popularity. If that all sounds pretentious, it is but the character is saved from pretentiousness by her sincerity and her flaws. She gets angry, she has burst of immaturity, she makes rash decisions, she refuses to deal with certain emotional issues honestly, and she is far out of her depth in dealing with an unexpected pregnancy.

She has help of course. This film boasts a wonderful ensemble of supporting characters, many highly established, including Jason Bateman who here plays the would-be dad of Juno and Bleeker's child, even though he played the father of the character played by Michael Cera in Arrested Development (that has to be some kind of weird). The main seconds here are Juno's parents and a couple who wants to adopt her child. Also in the mix, is Juno's best friend, Leah, and a bunch of more minor elements. Yet all these secondary characters have a little oddity to them, I noticed as I watched the film. Here's where I started to notice how much the film really centers around Juno.

Let me break for a second and admit to something. I read a review of Juno before I saw the movie and read some partial reviews in addition. Ideally I think you should watch a movie cold first, read about it, then watch it again, but that's very hard to actually arrange. But what you read changes how you view the movie and two items I read altered, perhaps a little, perhaps a lot, how I viewed Juno. Firstly, I read a NY Times opinions piece about Juno, I will discuss it later, but I also read a small item on Roger Ebert's website (I'm not sure if the item is still there, but basically it says that the dialog is too witty and Roger Ebert says the tone sells it convincingly).

The smaller piece I read, the one on Roger Ebert's website, had a greater impact I think. Because when I heard Juno's dad say Damn Skippy instead of a curse, I knew this dialog was far too witty to be realistic. Maybe some people do curse with Damn Skippy, but those people who do are rare, and by all other measures Juno's dad is a good-hearted, pretty hip, but essentially average blue-collar father, so for him to realistically say Damn Skippy... But why should this be realistic? Looking at the other characters I realized there's something surreal about them too. Juno's friend Leah is supposed to be popular and a teacher-phile (it's not terribly strange that she's friends with Juno, cliques these days aren't what they used to be), but she talks in the same way Juno does, or rather in a cool kid dialect of how Juno talks, and since Juno talks in a way cool kids generally only talk with sarcasm, such a dialect should not exist.

Moreover, the store clerk insults her when she goes for pregnancy tests. Why would he do that? Moreover, her parents let her drive her car at all odd hours of the night after she was pregnant (well, the step-mother does scold her briefly, but as scolds go it was fairly light). Moreover... moreover Fall and Winter are pencil sketched in the sky to signal their presence. That isn't something odd for modern movies, but what it represents has been forgotten by many modern filmwatchers and filmmakers. It represents surreality, where reality adjusts to the contours of the mind. And here, Juno's entire world, and her supporting characters fit perfectly the contours of the emotional and mental reality of Juno, who may be a fictional character, but who's complexities suggest a degree of emotional and mental reality. So the excessive wittiness, the oddness of the characters, the strangeness of some of the things Juno gets away with (like sitting in a trophy case at school during lunchtime (and not an isolated trophy case)), all just serve to help deepen her character.

Like I said, the film revolves around her. All this surrealism means that Juno is the center of this universe, she is its queen, and because she's such an engaging character, this film remains engaging, heart-tugging, and enchanting.

It even allows me to excuse some miscues that I would be far more critical of otherwise. One miscue I found glaring, was in the suburban couple who wants to adopt Juno's child. Let me point out here, as some people might have guessed, that this film in many ways parallels Knocked Up, as a woman gets pregnant and then falls in love with the guy who knocked her up, except here the girl is firmly the center of the film and the girl is 16 (the guy is around 16 too). Yet one way the film also seemed to be paralleling Knocked Up is in Michael Bateman's character, who was the suburban father-to-be who was an ex-rock star turned jingle writer, who is now worried about what he'll have to give up to become a father.

Eventually, this character sort of falls in love with Juno (and she, it is implied, kind of falls in love with him, although when confronted with his feelings she rejects him), decides he'd rather be a rockstar than be a father, and leaves his wife. On the surface very different from Knocked Up's dad-to-be character, who was an uber-slacker. But if you look at the ambition Michael Bateman's dream (it's not enough for him to have toured with the Melvins, there's still something more he has to do), his fancying an underage girl, and the relatively weak pressure from his wife's side (it is fairly obvious she disapproves of some ways he behaves, but on the other hand, she doesn't seem to harsh on him for it, although she usually gets her way), it seems like he's just having trouble growing up.

Yet the film doesn't let this fully play out. Instead Michael Bateman's character just leaves his wife after the first fight and it is implied that she then raises Juno's child as a single mother. The emotionally deep ground of the disintegration of a marriage and its complexity with this adoption is only superficially treated. But I understand that a film which encompasses most of a pregnancy must make some narrative choices, and I understand that this film is in the end Juno's story.

And yet, I also thought it was Bleeker's story, which makes another miscue by the film a little more annoying. Bleeker's emotional journey in this film is shown in odd scenes here and there, which is understandable, and it is most spelled out in his interactions with Juno, fine, the film is called Juno. Yet, his emotional journey in this film is all about him telling Juno how he feels and forcing her to confront those feelings and her feelings. It isn't at all dealing with the fact that the baby is his. Maybe Juno was the initiator of sex, maybe she was the driving force of their relationship, maybe she is the star of the film, still... I really would have liked to see Bleeker's reaction to the fact he has a child being born and eventually given away. While other characters were oddly shallow at times, I thought Bleeker was for the most part a fully developed character, and I was disappointed that I didn't see him act like a father. Perhaps Bleeker's story would have taken up too much time, perhaps Bleeker the boyfriend fit in better with the surreal world centered around Juno, but a little something about Bleeker the father would have been appreciated in the movie about Juno the mother.

But then again, in the end Juno isn't the mother. The suburban mom, now alone, takes Juno's child and Juno doesn't go see the baby off and the movie implies that Juno now has no role in the child's life. That isn't actually a bad move for the movie to make, because many teen pregncies end with similar situations. But not all end with the teen smiling in the sunshine and playing a love song with her boyfriend.

Juno is a fairy tale. So said that New York Time op-ed piece I read before (I told you I would get back to that), and that's because it neglects any real emotional aftermath after the baby is given away. I have to say that while I'm not as harsh on the film as the op-ed piece, the character of Juno is far too deep to fit in a fairy tale, I must say the ending is a bit off-putting. Not that Juno should have ended up sad and alone, scarred forever by her teen pregnancy. It makes perfect sense to end the film with Juno and Bleeker side by side happy. But the film should have shown some sign that the pregnancy left an impact on Juno. There should be some measure of emotional weight on her, even if she's capable, as her character should be by all we've seen before, of handling that weight. There should be some significance of the pregnancy to Juno's life. As it is, the pregnancy seems to have just been another one of those obstacles Juno had to overcome in her teenage years to grow up emotionally and become a good girlfriend.

Yet, let me not end on complaints. Because this movie is marvelous. It is immensely funny, it is full of a consistent liveliness, it is beautifully crafted in terms of filmcraft, and it paints a masterpiece of a portrait of the emotional life of a fully individualized, yet highly realistic (I knew kids sort of like this in high school, let me just call them the counterculture geeks, combine the aspects of both the counterculture groups and the geek groups, and you'll have an idea of what I'm talking about), 16-year old girl. It is simply an amazing film, and a wonderfully well-spend 2 hours.

So despite flaws that dig at me even now, the wonder that is Juno demands nothing less than 8 out of 10. I have to give it to her, it wasn't really my idea.

So take it to your head, take it to your heart and remember Rand rocks. Goodnight Folks!

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