Sunday, January 13, 2008

Juno

Juno (4.5/5)

The first question of importance about Juno is, why doesn’t the main character get an abortion? The obvious answer is that an abortion would have simply ended the plot. Sober reality does not mesh with wacky hijinks. It’s important to pause and think about the abortion issue for a minute since it was similarly passed over in Knocked Up. Is this some kind of right to life conspiracy? Hardly, I think it is the simple fact that abortion doesn’t have a place in comedy, while pregnancy is a regular comedic staple even if it’s a pregnant sixteen year-old. Whether you are pro-choice or pro-life, abortion is too complex an issue for a movie about a sardonic teenager. If you’re interested in that kind of a story it would be better to watch Lake of Fire or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days .

Juno is the title character of the film who winds up Knocked Up by the kid from Superbad, who under any other circumstances would have grown up to be a 40 Year-Old Virgin (where’s my check Judd Apatow!?). After a disastrous visit to a planned pregnancy agency (Juno decides to go to Women Now “because they help women now”) the sixteen year-old decides to carry the child to term. However, instead of keeping the child Juno decides to take responsibility by, conversely, giving the child away to a young yuppie couple who cannot have a child of their own. The issue of teenage pregnancy and premarital pregnancy is both all too common and at the same time commonly feared. Whether you know someone who has been in that situation, have children who could be in that situation, or could be in that situation yourself, it’s a pervasive problem at all levels of society, which in turn makes it perfectly suited for comedy. Too often these off-beat comedies with quirky characters come off as mean spirited or look down on their characters and by extension look down on their audience (*cough* Napoleon Dynamite *cough*). This is not the case with Juno which treats every character as simultaneously flawed and heroic. There is no villain, and even though Juno may fight with her stepmother, her stepmother is not the easy caricature of a joke she would have been in lesser hands, instead she too has her moment of heroics when she defends Juno from a snarky ultrasound technician.

Juno is also one of the few American films to include the subtext of economic class in America. Most movie jobs happen to be something ridiculously specific, like someone who's job is to provides seat fillers for celebrity weddings for when guests don't show up, and at the last minute the director decides a meta-cameo by Julia Roberts is the one thing the film really needs. By contrast Juno's father is an AC repairman. While Juno lives in a cluttered household somewhere in the lower range of middle class, the adopting couple lives in a pristine McMansion, complete with disgustingly cute pictures of themselves that line the staircase. Juno’s stepmother addresses this issue by claiming that the couple could actually be worse parents than Juno would be. There is something of a Brad and Angelina quality to a couple who would lift a child from its less well off roots into a life of means assuming that more money automatically means a better life, but at the same time it would be difficult to argue that a sixteen year old, without an education and whose family may not have the level of finances to provide for a grandchild, would necessarily be the best caretaker for her child. It would have been nice for these issues to be addressed directly by the script instead of quite literally being put into the background through set design, but they are nevertheless present in a film market where class is almost always invisible.

My one complaint is that of the soundtrack. While there are some nice selections like The Kinks, Buddy Holly, and in a pivotal scene Sonic Youth’s “Superstar,” the most common artist, Kimya Dawson, is a little too twee for my tastes. Supposedly Juno is a big fan of bands like The Runaways and The Stooges, but instead of a punk soundtrack we get self-consciously cute acoustic numbers. I will give credit to films like Juno that move beyond the cliché Forest Gump songs, which were obvious and too on the nose to be effective, and mine some previously uncovered gems from The KinksI will also give credit to films that highlight contemporary artists. At the same time, rock music did not die in 1969 and there is more to contemporary indie rock than middling acoustic pop.

Perhaps I’m being greedy, and the more that a filmmaker gives me the more I ask for. I suppose it should be enough to have a film with genuine characters, nuanced humor, and some good rather than great songs.

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