Who could have foreseen that 2007 would be the year of the unplanned pregnancy at the multiplex? And who could have foreseen that, as the year progressed, the films dealing with this topic would be increasingly bold in expressing their implicitly pro-life — not “anti-choice,” but certainly pro-life — sensibilities?
First there was Waitress, which starred 30-ish Keri Russell as a married woman who learns that she is bearing the offspring of her neglectful, even abusive, husband; deeply ambivalent about the pregnancy itself, she simply states that she recognizes the child’s “right to thrive,” and that is that. Then there was Knocked Up, in which Katherine Heigl played a single up-and-coming journalist in her 20s who keeps her baby partly because she is repulsed by her mother’s suggestion that she “take care of” the pregnancy now and have a “real baby” at some point in the future.
And now, there is Juno, which is arguably the funniest and most meaningful of the lot. The film stars Ellen Page as the youngest mother of them all, a whip-smart high-school student named Juno MacGuff who discovers that she is in the family way after a single sexual experience with her best friend and bandmate, a semi-dorky track star named Paulie Bleeker (Superbad’s Michael Cera).
The film’s early scenes play on the idea that teenagers these days have become quite casual about sexual matters — Juno’s friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) offers to call the abortion clinic for her, just like she did for one of their friends — but things take an unexpected turn when Juno shows up at the clinic itself. Standing outside is a classmate named Su-Chin (Valerie Tian), who holds a pro-life placard and chants, insistently but not aggressively, “All babies want to get borned!”
Juno shrugs Su-Chin off at first, but as she sits in the lobby, something else Su-Chin said — that her baby has fingernails — sticks in Juno’s mind, underscoring the humanity of the unborn fetus. In fact, it sticks in her mind so much that, before long, Juno stands up and walks right back out of the clinic — much to the delight of Su-Chin, who beams, “God appreciates your miracle!”
This is the one and only time that we see Su-Chin, and what with her bad grammar and earnest sloganeering, she may come across as a bit of a stereotype. But the story hinges on her, so it is worth noting the small but significant part she plays in convincing Juno to carry her baby to term — a decision that becomes the first step on a humorous, confusing, and ultimately moving path towards Juno’s greater maturity. Put simply: because Juno accepts her pregnancy, she grows up.
Juno recognizes, however, that she is not ready to raise the child, so she looks in the classifieds for a couple that wants to adopt, and she finds one in the comfortably middle-class Mark and Vanessa Loring (The Kingdom co-stars Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner). But there are hints, too subtle for Juno, that the Lorings might not be on quite the same page. Vanessa desperately wants a child, but Mark doesn’t seem to share her enthusiasm. And when Juno discovers that Mark is a musician too, he strikes up a friendship with her that threatens to cross a boundary or two.
Juno is the first film written by Diablo Cody, a blogger and former stripper who knows how to come up with hip, clever lines and so-old-they’re-cool-again pop-culture references (“Thundercats are go!” cries Juno when she goes into labour). But even better than that is the way the film goes beneath the hipster surface and gives many of its characters an extra dimension that goes beyond Juno’s perception of them. In short, this is a film that empathizes with all of its main characters.
Vanessa, for example, seems rather uptight when we first meet her, so much so that you wonder if you would really want to give your child to her; but later on, Juno bumps into Vanessa at a shopping mall and offers to let Vanessa feel her belly — and there is genuine, sympathetic suspense as we wait to see whether the baby will kick and, in some sense, begin to bond with its would-be future adoptive mother.
On the flip side, we can also appreciate that Mark, who used to play in a rock and roll band before he turned to writing commercial jingles, feels constricted by Vanessa’s need to form a proper suburban domestic family unit. His music, his comics, and his horror movies are all confined to a single room while Vanessa seeks his opinion on which shade of yellow to color the baby’s room. Mark makes at least one very bad decision because he feels so stifled, but we can understand why he does.And then there are Juno’s parents. As Juno’s father, J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson) lets the love and concern he has for his daughter show through his usual gruff exterior. And as Juno’s stepmother, Alison Janney (who has played her share of caricatures, most recently in Hairspray) has moments of genuine warmth and compassion. Remarkably, while the film is clearly told from Juno’s point of view, and while Juno’s taste in music and knack for witticisms mark her as an alter ego of sorts for screenwriter Cody, the film is smart enough and broad-minded enough to recognize that Juno really is a naïve child in some ways, and that sometimes the adults — including those that Juno taunts — really do know better than her.
Juno is directed by Jason Reitman, whose last film was the scathingly brilliant satire Thank You for Smoking. The new film is, if anything, even better than his previous effort, and it works equally well as a story of pre-mid-life crisis — when, exactly, did Gen-Xers like Mark abandon the mosh pit for mortgages and families? — and as a straightforward high-school comedy, with hints of possible romance as Paulie shyly suggests that he and Juno should get back “together” on a long-term basis.
Note to those who may be drawn to the movie by the pro-life elements: It would be a stretch to say that Cody or Reitman intended this to be a “socially conservative” film. Juno and her friends are still teenagers, with all that that implies, though the jokes they tell never stray outside PG-13 territory. (This isn’t a Judd Apatow film, in other words.) Also, it is worth noting that, when all is said and done, neither Juno nor her child end up in a traditional family, as such. But in a way, that just underscores the film’s implicit pro-life sensibility. Life is life, and deserves to be nurtured, even — if not especially — when everything around it is broken.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Talk About It
1. Juno’s dad says, “I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when,” and Juno replies, “I don’t know what kind of girl I am.” How does keeping her baby affect Juno’s sense of her own identity? How do her choices shape her? How do you think things would have turned out for her if she hadn’t kept the baby?
2. Juno’s stepmother says, “Someone’s going to get a special blessing from Jesus in this garbage dump of a situation.” In what way is the baby a blessing? Who is blessed by the baby? Juno? Vanessa? Mark? Juno’s father and stepmother? Are pregnancies ever bad? Are unwanted pregnancies ever good? How can good come out of possibly bad situations like this? (Cf. Genesis 45:4-8; Romans 8:28.)
3. What does the film say about pregnancy and abortion? Does it neatly fit into a “pro-life” or “pro-choice” category? Why do you think the film deals with the subject the way it does? What difference does it make that babies have “fingernails”?
4. What does the film say about relationships, marriage and divorce? Note how Juno discusses her birth mother in the opening voiceover. Note also how Juno wishes it were possible for relationships to last forever. Is she naïve? Is she tapping into a certain truth? Why don’t some relationships last? What should people do when they don’t?
5. What does the film say about the current attitude toward sex among teenagers? If everyone is doing it, then why does Juno cringe at the term “sexually active”, or at the way adults try to get kids to use condoms, etc.? Is this portrayal accurate?
The Family Corner
For parents to consider
Juno is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material (a high school girl gets pregnant and goes to an abortion clinic, where she meets a pro-life classmate), sexual content (brief flashbacks to the moment when Juno and Paulie had sex, though without explicit nudity) and language (about half-a-dozen four-letter words). There are also a couple of brief and mildly irreverent, but not hostile, references to God and Jesus.
— A version of this review was first published by Christianity Today Movies.