Last night I finally watched Juno. Since the moment I saw the trailer for this movie way back when, I knew I was going to like it, so it hasn’t seemed very necessary to actually watch it. But I’m glad that I did, and I’ll tell you why—in case you, too, have just heard too much about it and can’t muster the enthusiasm to rent it.
This movie is a neat little fable about maturity. It’s quirky and delightful, yes, but its real strength (as many others have mentioned) is the respect with which it treats its main female characters. Not just Juno, the pregnant teenager at its center, but also her stepmother (played by the always fantastic Allison Janney) and the prospective adoptive mother (played by Jennifer Garner, in one of the film’s two truly great performances, but more about that anon). Both of these older women are initially mocked to a certain extent—Janney spends her evenings cutting out magazine pictures of weimaraners when, as Juno points out, “you don’t even have a dog!” and Garner’s straightlaced thirtysomething keeps an immaculate yuppie subdivision mansion, consigning her husband’s guitars and music collections to the basement—but ultimately those characteristics that make them seem absurd Juno’s (and our) eyes are precisely the characteristics that make them strong women in their own contexts. Janney meets Juno’s scorn at her weimaraner habit by pointing out that the reason she doesn’t have an actual dog is because that is a sacrifice she has made to be a parent. And Garner’s perfectly cringe-worthy speech when we first meet her about how she was just “born to be a mommy” turns out to be a declaration of her ability to be the movie’s hero. Janney’s character is never anything less than Juno’s “real mom” despite her explicit status as stepparent, and the movie’s intelligent refusal to make the authenticity of constructed family bonds an issue quietly underpins the adoption narrative—we never doubt that adoptive parents could be a baby’s “real family.”
Ultimately, Juno is less about the trials of a sixteen-year-old girl than it is about the morality of knowing how to act your age. Maturity is not a state of being one reaches by jumping through certain hoops, here; instead, it is a state of grace achieved by fulfilling your present stage of life in the most responsible fashion, whether that means not getting a dog, adopting a child, or knowing that you are (in Juno’s words) “ill-equipped” as a high-school girl to be a parent. I think this movie is in many ways aimed directly at viewers like me: women inclined to identify with Juno’s style, her taste in music and her way of talking, but who are actually closer in age to Garner’s earnest, maternal yuppie. We are grown women who still make mix tapes that sound exactly like the movie’s soundtrack (seriously, I have actually made mixes that are, I think, EXACTLY the movie’s soundtrack) and want desperately not to come off as Garner does in her first scenes—crisp, joyless, unembarrassed by her predilection for the Pottery Barn aesthetic and the joys of motherhood. But we are also the kind of women who are likely, as we reach thirty, to find ourselves married (as Garner’s character is) to former boyfriends who have refused to give up their half-assed and increasingly sad rockstar ambitions (I am not speaking personally, here, by the way), and who are exactly at the point at which it’s time to put away the crappy hamburger phone and start thinking about what it takes to be a grown-up—to keep a home, hold down a job, maintain a family. At one point, Garner’s husband (played perfectly by Jason Bateman) and Juno share a laugh over Garner’s nagging that Bateman doesn’t “contribute”—but what we come to see is that while “contributing” to a household might not (perhaps shouldn’t) make sense to a teenage girl, it sure as hell should to a married 34-year-old man on the verge of adopting a baby.
I really thought Garner was a knockout in this movie. I tend to like her anyway (I will admit that I LOVE 13 Going on 30, another movie made for me and my ilk, and, now that I write it down, an interesting counterpoint to Juno as a film about women whose identities fluctuate between thirteen and thirty years old) but I was really surprised by how well her character resisted the potential satire aimed at her, without having to reveal inner depths that are initially unapparent. She is always exactly what she says in her first interview with Juno and Juno’s father; we just come to respect what that is as the film progresses.
The other great performance is the always pitch-perfect Michael Cera, who plays the unlikely father of Juno’s fetus. He is exactly the kind of kid that some of us (now I am kind of speaking personally) remember, with a bit of shame, taking for granted in high school—the quiet, not-so-cool, desperately loyal boy whose perpetual crush bolstered our own adolescent self-confidence. Again, the movie beautifully fails to mock the pathos of such a character, instead revealing it to be yet another unlikely form of maturity that deserves Juno’s, and our, respect. In the one scene in which Cera’s character is pushed to stick up for himself against Juno’s thoughtlessness, the lines he delivers are so true, and delivered with such reluctance (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see him swallow his “la la la”) that I got a lump in my throat—a lump, it turns out, that arises in Juno’s throat at the same time, and explodes into frustrated tears a little while later when she is alone in her Previa. This scene reminded me powerfully of one of the classic moments of teenage-girl-called-out-and-instilled-with-sense-of-shame-necessary-to-her-maturation: the scene from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (which, yes, I happen to be teaching today) in which Henry Tilney calls out Catherine Morland for harboring disrespectful thoughts, jarring her into a moment of teary self-consciousness that teaches her the difference between being a feisty, self-absorbed girl (fine up till now) and being a smart, respectful young woman capable of mature love and relationships.
I have now squandered the morning I’d slotted for class preparation to singing Juno‘s praises, so you should similarly drop something important and take an hour and a half to watch the movie.