Thursday, January 10, 2008

Review: Juno (2007)

I only in the vaguest sense remember covering archetypes during my college years, whether it was during film school or Western Lit or a composition course, I don't recall. Something something Beowulf begat Lord of the Rings begat Star Wars begat Carl Jung droning on and on begat the Meyers-Briggs test begat this breathtakingly dull course, and so on. I wasn't particularly intrigued until it brought up Star Wars, and then only long enough to copy down someone else's notes befor falling asleep again (I slept a lot in college). But I did store the fact that an archetype (n., ar·che·type) is, as Jung put it, innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic themes of human life emerge. Or, less boorishly, a generic personality on whose framework we hang the basic themes of life.

It is certainly possible (and likely preferable) to talk about Juno and not address character archetypes, but I just don’t have any desire to. Juno is a sweet, delicate comedy about a girl named Juno (Ellen Page) who gets pregnant, keeps the baby, and makes plans to give it to a successful, beautiful couple who have no children. Hijinks do not ensue. There, I covered the plot, let’s talk about archetypes. Jung would be so proud, the pompous Swiss bastard.

A good portion of the reviews I’ve read of Juno focus on the fact that the film hands us characters we’ve seen before: popular best friends, geeky love interests, clueless parents, etc., then turns them on their head (though not literally, it’s not that sort of comedy), but I disagree. I don’t think the film (and by extension, screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, whose efforts here I’ll address in a moment) are actively flipping these characters so that they do what we don’t expect, I think we’ve trained ourselves to believe that movie characters can only behave in certain patterns, and that whenever characters move in directions opposite of the ones which we have unconsciously charted for them, we read it as the creators playing with convention, without considering that the creators may have abandoned convention altogether.

There are only so many classic archetypes in literature - the Shadow, the Child, the Self, the Wisecracking Sidekick, Woody Allen, and the Top Hat all spring to mind as I recall my college notes - but we’ve adapted or created a large number for our film culture. Many are recognizable on sight; cinema is filled with the perfect girl who can’t see past her own feelings of inadequacy, the charismatic man who can’t learn to commit until the girl of his dreams is almost gone, the plucky underdog who needs to prove his worth to himself, and whatever the hell you'd call what Steve Zahn does. I don’t mean to dismiss archetypes in this column because archetypes are important, they help us relate to the story and to each other, which is why they’ve lasted so long. Luke Skywalker is an archetype, which is why so many people grow up believing, subconsciously (and sometimes consciously), that they’re just like him, a lonely kid with big dreams but even bigger, unrealized potential. God knows I believe it, and that’s without even getting into my deeply held belief that if I keep trying hard enough, I’ll discover I have the Force and won’t have to get up to grab the remote anymore.

The truth is that the characters of these movies don’t fit these molds because they’re real people. They're not actually real people, because this is not a documentary, not that anyone would see a documentary about a pregnant teenager, not even if it was filled with quaint indie acoustic songs, but my point is that they're like real people. They feel like real people. They don’t always act in absolute accordance to their beliefs, they get upset when they should be sympathetic, they have strange quirks that make us uncertain if we’d really want to spend a lot of time around them. Quirks are supposed to unequivocally draw you to or drive you from a character, so that their obsessive train-set hobby or love for abandoned parakeets tells you whether or not this is someone we should be rooting for, but Juno never lets you off that easy. The characters' interests are never metaphors for larger parts of their characters, they’re just pieces of who they are. Which makes it so much more moving when you see a character do the right thing, because there’s never any way to know, really, what they were going to do otherwise. We know, we always know, that Matthew McConaughey will get the girl at the end of the movie because he’s a charismatic man who can’t learn to commit, but he loves dogs and helps his autistic nephew win an archery competition, and so he’s bound to win her over a few minutes before her boat sails for the Galapagos. Here, we’re never quite certain.

Early in the movie, Juno treks to an abortion clinic and is accosted out front by a girl from her school who tells her that the baby inside of her has fingernails. We know, because we know what sort of movie this is, that Juno will not abort the baby, but to see her suddenly light up at the prospect that the fetus inside her has fingernails isn’t just a revelation to her, it’s a revelation to us. She leaves the clinic and we see, in that moment, another side of Juno; and the great part about this movie is that we get characters who have more than just two sides, so that we can continue discovering, the whole movie long, who these people are.

Juno – the character, not the movie – would probably be interpreted as part of the Skywalker mold in a traditional film critique, an adaptation of the plucky hero, but I think, if you had to put her into a box, she’s more like the perfect girl. Juno pretends to be clever and impulsive and unique and is too inadequate to realize that underneath she really is clever and impulsive and unique, and brave, and thoughtful, and wise. She never realizes it either, not even at the end, which is what makes her so attractive as a main character – we, too, would like to believe that we have brilliant qualities visible to everyone else but hidden eternally from us. Perhaps that’s Juno’s archetype, if such an archetype exists.

I’ve been reading Cluck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, and there’s a section in it where he addresses, albeit briefly, the notion of archetypes in popular culture.

“The character of Angela on ABC’s short-lived drama My So-Called Life was Byzantine and unpredictable and emotionally complex, and all that well-crafted nuance made her seem like an individual. But Angela was so much an individual that she wasn’t like anyone but herself; she didn’t reflect any archetypes. She was real enough to be interesting, but too real to be important.

What’s interesting about the quote is that when Klosterman wrote it several years ago, it seemed truer than it is now. But My So-Called Life has stuck with popular culture better than Saved By The Bell (the show Klosterman was reviewing at the time), and is undergoing a bit of a revival right at the moment (a DVD box set was just released, and ABC is currently screening old episodes on their website). The show has proved to be more lasting not because it is better – though it certainly is – but because Angela was so real that it took us a long time to realize that she was important, and viewers related to her strongly because she was so much of an individual that it took us years to recognize that this made her just like us.

The wonder of Juno is that each character is so well-defined in their humanity that the decisions they make, both correct and incorrect, never seem out of place with who they really are, and yet each decision made moves the story speedily along. Diablo Cody, through Reitman’s direction and the stalwart performances of these actors, has made people so real that the smallest glance and hesitation explains volumes about who they really are, which is why these reviewers who spent the movie unconsciously filling in the gaps of their personalities with archetypes are so surprised at the end by the actions of the characters, when a closer observation would’ve revealed how true each action is the character we’ve seen developed the whole length of the film.

Indeed, I wondered if they managed to notice the characters at all. Most of the reviews heap praise on the film but – because every reviewer has to point out a flaw in every film in order to prove that they have liberal arts degree – they mention how the film is “fast-talking” or has “dialogue like a sugar rush,” or mentions an abundance of teen-speak and slang-heavy conversations, as if it's a good film held back by its desire to be too hip for the room. I make the opposite case, that the film is actually quite sparse in its use of dialogue. Truth be told, the exchanges sometimes move at a whip-fast pace, with Page in particular running her lines at a head-spinning rate. But the pace is never a stylistic choice, always a character one: Juno speaks so quickly to hide her uncertainty behind a solid wall of snark. But in the more delicate moments, Reitman and Cody know that the slightest hint will suffice.

There’s a part in the film where, upon meeting Juno, the adoptive mother (Jennifer Garner) says to her “Some people are born to be certain things; I was born to be a mother.” In that one line, with her tone and her smile and her posture, Garner conveys everything. Without another word, we understand that her whole life has been leading up to this moment, that the last five years have involved endless trying and fertility tests and nights spent lying awake and constant tension between her and her husband, yet Garner says the line with such hope that you understand that she really believes she was meant for this, that this has always been who she was meant to become. All with just one line.

Jason Reitman directs this film with the same effortless capability he showed in Thank You For Smoking, a movie he both wrote and directed. Tellingly, he focuses just as intently on what’s being said here as he did when it was his own words he was translating to screen. Reitman knows that this isn’t dialogue like a sugar rush; that every line matters, because he doesn’t have any archetypes for these people to hide behind. Here, the characters have to speak for themselves.

And the wonder of it is that, in a diluted world of lazy filmmaking, they actually do.

Four and a half stars out of five.

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At January 10, 2008 9:00 PM, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

What we now have in movies are more stock characters than archetypes. Archetypes are more vague, bubbling up in the stew of Story half-recognized, then disappearing. Stock characters are more culture specific, and thus more recognizable. The Senex in Pacific Island cultures doesn't act like the Senex in in northwest Europe, though one can pick out similarities.

I just made all that up (though I stole the metaphor from JRRT), but it's absolutely true.

At January 11, 2008 5:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think what we have on our hands with Juno is a creepy pro-life movie dressed up like a hip indie film. I can't believe that no one has noticed that. And as for the "real" characters... There is nothing real about these characters. The scene when Juno tells her father and step-mother about her pregnancy was such a waste of a moment - it could have really grounded the picture. I didn't believe a second of it. No one was honest in that scene. Everyone is so eager to feel a part of a edgy hipster scene that they don't realize that this was only crafted to appear that way... It's stealing from some pretty obvious stuff too. Basically Juno = Right wing Napoleon Dynamite with a Rushmore soundtrack... Wake up America. This is depressing.

At January 11, 2008 6:33 PM, Blogger Wyman said...

Why, whenever someone complains that something is overtly Right-wing, they must add "wake up, America!" to the end of their statement? I'm up, I'm up! Surely, it's become clear to everyone that the Republicans have taken over Hollywood and are filling our minds with their propaganda. Look at the films that came out this fall: Redacted, Grace Is Gone, Lions For Lambs, In The Valley Of Elah. It's clear that Cheney's grasp includes even the very films we watch.

In Juno's defense, I felt quite strongly it was in no way a strongly Pro-Life film, but instead was a good example of the options that Pro-Choicers argue for. Juno gets pregnant and treks to an abortion clinic, but after arriving feels too attached to the baby inside her to go through with the procedure. The film never says that abortion is the wrong choice, Juno simply feels that it's the wrong choice for her. Being Pro-Choice gave her the option of making that choice herself, which is what being Pro-Choice is supposed to be all about.

And finally, while Juno is in some ways an unoriginal picture, comparing it to Napoleon Dynamite is to admit that you've probably never watched an independent film you weren't forced to. Offbeat characters and unusual pacing is the mark of independent film in general, and while Juno and Dynamite aren't at the opposite ends of the spectrum, they're close. They would seem similar to anyone who only gets exposed to broader comedies like Wedding Crashers or Dodgeball. Wake up, America! There's a whole pack of great movies out there that you're not watching!

At January 11, 2008 8:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I happen to be a working screenwriter. I'm sure I've seen more films than you have and I promise you the range is greater than you imagine. If you don't see the similarities between Juno and ND/Rmore and even that horrible excuse for "indie" Garden State (where basically we're being told that a film is just a music video with a little dialogue between songs) than you're blinded by the package. All of those film have in common a forced quirkiness. And "offbeat characters and unusual pacing" is not anything I've ever complained about. Also... I have never seen the Wedding Crashers or Dodge Ball. I would never watch those kinds of films. And the only reason I watched Juno was because it was sent to me as a screener (we get them so we can vote in the awards).
I don't object to a film showing someone making their own personal choice about abortion or motherhood. What I object to is the message of this film which is essentially you can get pregnant at 16, you can tell you parents, you can have the baby and put it up for adoption and don't worry you'll be FINE. There will be almost no conflict in your life as a result. Nothing really will change. You can even have a boyfriend still and in 9 short months you'll be out on your bike again riding to see your boyfriend to play sweet little songs with each other. It's absurd. Absolutely ridiculous.
And lastly... if you don't think having Juno go to the abortion clinic where a kid she goes to school with tells her, "Your baby has finger nails" isn't promoting ridiculous right wing propaganda... you're crazy. And maybe the reason why people are so often telling American's to wake up is because it's truly troubling to see how brainless most are. Maybe we should elect Huckabee and go to war in Iran!!! More good ideas from the religious right!! Yay!

At January 13, 2008 3:10 PM, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Ooh, a working screenwriter, Ben. Better watch out! (Maybe he worked on the Name of the King script, went looking for reviews, and is feeling defensive).

Ben may have guessed wrong about how many movies you watch, anonymous, but I note that you have yet to actually make a supported argument. Thus far, it has been "Oh yeah it is! And if you don't see it you're stooopid!" Now really.

It's rather dramatic of you to assert that scenario of the young woman speaking to her parents in such a way never happens. Had you claimed it was unusual, you might at least have an arguable point. But remarkable things happen all the time, and I actually know people (plural) where a similar scenario played out. I make my living in human services, so I doubt I'm unfamiliar with the underside of life. As you can only make that point by exaggerating that the movie claims that people in such situations will never have any problems (rather than the milder point of "you can live through this and still have a good life"), you've pretty much given away the argument. A measured comment is usually easier to defend than an all-encompassing one.

As the mere mentioning in a movie that the baby has fingernails, and that a young woman might find that persuasive seems to offend you, I suspect you are deeply offended by a great deal. Sorry that you feel the need to shout down opinions opposed to yours.

At January 14, 2008 1:29 PM, Blogger Wyman said...

Thanks for showing up to do the heavy lifting for me, AVI. I would also have pointed out that as a "working screenwriter," you are either crossing picket lines or hasn't yet tendered an invite to the WGA. Of course, when you consider that your are a person whose seen far more movies than I have while refusing to watch mainstream comedies or indie comedies unless forced, it seems impossible that the WGA wouldn't want you. Regardless, someone is sending your company screeners, and somewhere, your vote is probably canceling out Alexander Payne's.

I don't think I'm blinded by package when I say that there are real style differences between Juno and Napoleon Dynamite. Both movies are ironic, certainly, and appeal to a certain sensibility, but beyond that, they diverge. In Dynamite one laughs at the idiocy of the characters' paths and the inanity of their statements, in Juno, the characters are not always self-aware but they are clever, funny, and fully in possession of the consequences of their actions, whereas Napoleon seems to live in a consequence-free world. Consider the two main characters: how is a smart, witty, emotionally complex pregnant girl supposed to be a ripoff on a pathetically unaware to a dangerous degree high school boy? The smartest choice Juno makes is to give her child to the right person. The smartest choice Napoleon makes is to wildly, artlessly dance to "Canned Heat" in the school auditorium.

I feel, like AVI, that being so offended by Juno's decision not to abort her child is a bad sign for you. The truth is that, in film, simply discussing abortion in any context virtually always seems like a Pro-Life argument because actually confronting abortion is automatically an emotional struggle. The girl who confronts Juno is well-meaning and passionate but awkward and almost completely incable of relating to someone struggling with the idea of an abortion - a far more accurate stereotype than the militant protesters one normally sees in films like this.

If mentioning that the child has fingernails seems to be too much of an emotional pull, bear in mind that, of course, the protester is right. Republicans tend to be knocked for being unscientific because they have the lion's share of young-earth creationists in their midst, but on abortion it swings the other way. To truly address what state a fetus is in is to deal with the fact that at Juno's stage, the baby did have fingernails. The baby's heart was beating. Not addressing this in any discussion of abortion is to anesthetize the reality of the procedure.

Leaving political arguments aside, I feel the fact that you seem offended by the fact that a teenage girl didn't have an abortion is... worrying. I'm more than certain that in a lot of cases, things don't work out nearly as well as they do for Juno, but this isn't an argument against abortion anymore than My Best Friend's Wedding is a political argument on the sanctity of marriage. The pregnancy is the circumstance, not the point, of the story. What's interesting is the choices that Juno makes, and the blissful end result is her reward. Things are not always so pretty, but then the guy does not always really get the girl, and the underdog team does not always win the championship. But believing in it makes us better people.

I hope your screenplays are more fun than you sound.

At January 15, 2008 4:57 AM, Blogger Jihad Hernandez said...

I thoroughly enjoyed Juno, having walked into the theater with friends asking "What movie are we going to see?" and being amazingly delighted with the results. You and the AVI have quite thoroughly dissected and diagrammed the movie to the point that rather than decrease, has increased my appreciation of the movie. Thank you. I think my favorite scene was in the hallway by the lockers where Juno and Bleeker were having the argument about him going to prom with the girl that smells like soup. That argument, while utilizing childish and entirely appropriate teen-sounding slang, cut to the quick that Juno really did care about Bleeker and that Bleeker was hurt too and reacting honestly. I loved that.

And although I don't have much to add to the rebuttal to the statements made by anonymous, I'd like to say that saying Juno is a pro-life movie is like saying 40-year old virgin is an abstinence-until-marriage movie. Because I know when I watched 40year old virgin, I wasn't viewing because of any underlying moral rectitude. I was watching because I wanted to see a comedy. And because the Cluka wanted to go see it too.


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