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Jumping the snark: The Juno backlash (backlash)

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A teenage romantic fairy tale.

I'm a little confused about precisely where we stand at this very moment in the "Juno" backlash cycle, but I predict the anti-backlash backlash will begin any moment now if it hasn't already. The movie was warmly embraced at the Toronto International Film Festival (OK, the director is the son of the rich and famous Canadian director of "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters") and was greeted with predominantly positive reviews when it opened in December, although some critics, me included, thought it got off to a grating start. Roger Ebert even named it his favorite movie of 2007. My 16-year-old niece says it's her favorite film "ever."

Then came the inevitable backlash after the movie was no longer a "discovery": Why was this snarky teen comedy getting all this attention -- even Oscar buzz? (BTW, I've been doing occasional Google searches for "Juno"+"snark" since before the movie opened in December and the latest total is "about 26,500 results.") Arguments lit up all over the place. At Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Dennis Cozzalio chose it his worst film of the year. On rock critic Jim DeRogatis's Chicago Sun-Times blog, he accused the movie of "glib insincerity," suggested it could be seen as "anti-abortion and therefore anti-woman, despite its arch post-feminist veneer," and declared, "As an unapologetically old-school feminist, the father of a soon-to-be-teenage daughter, a reporter who regularly talks to actual teens as part of his beat and a plain old moviegoer, I hated, hated, hated this movie" ("Why 'Juno' is anti-rock," "More Juno Fallout," "And even a little bit more Juno").

Here at Scanners, we've been discussing whether the quip-laden language is too self-consciously "clever" for the teenage characters, after I expressed the opinion that the movie was eventually rescued by some perfectly pitched performances, if you could get past the cloying, "over-perky anachronistic pop-culture dialogue -- which is exactly what I've always disliked about "Pulp Fiction" (1994) (to cite the most obvious example)."

And Roger Ebert's Answer Man column ("Does Juno give away one-liners like free iPods?") the last few weeks has featured questions and complaints on both sides. Take this exchange from today's column, which is already addressing the initial blowback:

Q.I have been following the debate about the clever dialogue in "Juno" and there are two things I don't understand: (1) Why do people continue to expect every film they see to be a flawless reflection of reality when no film, not even a documentary, could ever accomplish such a feat? Isn’t one of the pleasures of going to the movies in seeing things we don’t usually see in the real world? (2) Why aren't more people refreshed that a film has gone against the grain by creating characters more intelligent than real people, as opposed to the Hollywood norm of creating characters who are considerably dumber and more shallow than real people? (Adam Breckenridge, Edmond OK)

A. In other words, to quote Professor Higgins, why can't people be more like us? There's a sort of Mediocrity Enforcement Squad that slaps down anything with the effrontery to be different. [...]

In short: Movie characters don't talk like real people. If they did, they'd drive us nuts.

My problem with some of the dialogue in "Juno" (particularly in those irritating first 20 minutes or so) isn't that the characters don't sound like real teenagers (or drugstore clerks or parents), it's that the stylized, deliberately over-written speech sounds like belabored sitcom writing to me, not clever or funny but stiff and fussy, as if awaiting a laughtrack to punch it up.

 

OK, I have some reservations about "Juno." I don't buy, for example, that a girl as smart and beautiful as Juno wouldn't have more friends, or that the only two she would have would be a cheerleader and a guy on the school cross-country team whose members inexplicably don't wear jocks while running. And I wonder if she's really stupid enough to think her third over-the-counter pregnancy test in one day would require her to drink a whole gallon of Sunny D -- in which case, as one of DeRogatis's commenters pointed out, "A mild desire to urinate would be the least of your problems..." (A bottle of water? Two cups of naturally diuretic coffee? A wee spot of herbal tea, if caffeine is not your thing?) Turns out, Juno is not such an idiot, and "Juno" is not "Citizen Ruth 2," a scabrous satirical socio-political comedy. It's a more conventional, sentimental romantic comedy about a high school girl in trouble.

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Juno tests her Sunny D levels.

But I actually want to say something here in defense of "Juno" -- or, at least, in defense of J.K. Simmons, the splendid actor who plays Mac, Juno's dad. (Alison Janney, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner also deserve as much credit for the success of "Juno" as lead actress Ellen Page.)

In a New York Times Op-Ed piece earlier this week ("Sex and the Teenage Girl"), Caitlin Flanagan writes:

For the most part, the tone of the movie is comedic and jolly, but there is a moment when Juno tells her father about her condition [pregnancy], and he shakes his head in disappointment and says, “I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when.”

Female viewers flinch when he says it, because his words lay bare the bitterly unfair truth of sexuality: female desire can bring with it a form of punishment no man can begin to imagine, and so it is one appetite women and girls must always regard with caution. Because Juno let her guard down and had a single sexual experience with a sweet, well-intentioned boy, she alone is left with this ordeal of sorrow and public shame.

Yes, there's some truth there, and the movie is not unaware of it, but I also think it's a misreading of the scene she mentions, and the movie as a whole.

 When Mac says that line about "the kind of girl who knew when to say when" -- not until near the end of the scene -- he's saying not so much what he really thinks (both he and Juno's stepmother Bren [Janney] are in shock, as they later discuss when they're alone) as something he feels he is obligated to say as a parent because, well, isn't that the kind of thing a father is supposed to say? It feels like an afterthought: "Oh, I should probably express my obligatory authority-figure scolding here, before I forget, lest anyone think I am implicitly condoning reckless sexual behavior."

Juno is expecting the adults to go through the roof with anger and outrage, but instead they take the news with sympathy, unexpected humor and equanimity. The whole tone of the scene deliberately plays against expectations, Juno's as much as the audience's. And her reply -- "I don't really know what kind of girl I am" -- is the first time we see her lower her snark-guard. In that moment she exhibits a potential for wisdom (and, with it, maybe even some form of human likeability) that we hadn't seen before, and that puts her father's hollow words to shame. For me, this was the first glimmer of hope that this Juno character might have the potential to become somebody worth watching for another hour or so.

Flanagan also doesn't seem to give the movie credit for not portraying Juno as a helpless victim. And Juno doesn't accept that role for herself, either. (Besides, nobody ever taunts or isolates her because she's showing, even at school, which she continues to attend. She isn't faced with "public shame," nor does she acknowledge any.) One of the things "Juno" gets absolutely right is that teenage girls (even more so than 20 or 30 years ago) are more sexually advanced, and in many cases more sexually aggressive, than teenage boys. (I'm speaking of biology here, not necessarily experience. In the movie, the strong implication is that both Juno and her best friend Paulie Bleeker [Cera] are virgins when they have sex "that one time.") At the end of the scene mentioned above, Mac shakes his head and jokes that he didn't think Paulie "had it in him." Bren immediately says, "You don't think it was his idea." Juno says the same thing to Paulie -- something like, "At least it wasn't your idea," as a mild slap in the face before riding off on her bike, leaving him standing in front of his parents' house, teary-eyed, bewildered and afraid, asking: "Who's idea was it?"

Strangely, and more than a little disconcertingly, "Juno" avoids the question of birth control almost entirely. All we know is that the idea of boysenberry flavored/scented condoms (or at least too much personal information about them shared by a women's clinic volunteer) seems to gross out Juno. She claims the sex with Paulie was "premeditated" on her part, at least since Spanish class last year. And you definitely get the impression that Paulie finished real fast, before either of them anticipated it (maybe one or the other thought pulling out was sufficient?), but "Juno" ventures no further into prophylactic territory.

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Fast Times at PG (-13) High.

Juno has the full support of her family, her cheerleader friend, the baby's potential adoptive parents -- and Paulie, if she'd allow him more of a role in her life. This is another of the movie's more perceptive observations (and one it shares with "Knocked Up"): In the United States today, unplanned pregnancy is no longer considered "a woman's problem" -- but how to handle it is absolutely a woman's decision. Men do not have an equal say in the matter because men don't get pregnant, and women have the moral and ethical right to choose what to do with their own bodies. Men, who share the responsibility but not the same biological consequences, are expected to stand by whatever decision the woman makes, without asserting undue pressure or influence.

This is the way "Juno" frames its title character's pregnancy, but the movie's central dilemma is the obvious fact that Juno is a girl, not a woman, and Paulie is a boy, not a man. Both try to act cool, mature beyond their years, because they don't know how else to behave. An inexperienced kid in an "adult" situation will often attempt to act like (his/her idea of) an adult, and feign an adult understanding, even when he/she has no way of understanding what that is. Trying to take responsibility for what she sees as her idea to try sex (although she knows Paulie wanted it at least as much as she did, and maybe that's one reason she made it happen to begin with), she pushes him away more forcefully than she realizes. Trying to give her the "space" she needs, he seems more distanced and standoffish than he wants to be. For these two, their first steps toward "growing up" will largely become a matter of recognizing and accepting the fact that they're still kids.

"Juno" is a romantic teen fairy tale that offers the illusion, at least, of a return to innocence after the fall. It's a "Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?" fantasy -- look at that idyllic last shot, it has lupines! -- that some find endearing and others appalling. I appreciate both perspectives. (Is it inconsistent of me to see the fairy-tale "Life Is Beautiful" as an unconscionable act of Holocaust denial committed by a deluded parent in the name of maintaining his -- and the audience's -- illusion of his child's "innocence" at the expense of, say, the kid's ability to survive? I don't know.)

Before all the hype, I thought of Diablo Cody's screenplay as a first-timer's modest but strained effort -- something the actors, the director, and the movie itself had to build upon, but also to overcome, even to work as a teen-sex genre comedy. And it's not easy to overcome a line like "Silencio, Old Man! Look, I just drank my weight in Sunny D and I gotta go pronto!" (Then again, if "American Pie," something I suffered all the way through, is considered a mild critical success, a popular hit, and a kind of genre milestone, I'll be grateful for the occasional "Juno." And even more so for "Superbad," which strikes me as a more subtle, smart and funny movie, mainly because its teen-vulgar humor depends so much on the personalities and insecurities of its characters rather than on their quips. The funniest lines don't assert themselves as overtly "clever" on the page, and don't nag you with a "Listen to me!" undertone when they're delivered on screen.)

Perhaps we can never return to that pre-Toronto moment when "Juno" was a no-name comedy starring some good actors, most of whom were best-known for their work on no-longer-extant TV shows. But wouldn't it be pretty to think so?

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