A sixteen-year-old high-school student named Juno MacGuff has just discovered she is pregnant. The father is a good friend of hers – Paulie Bleeker, though she didn’t count on this to result from his first time. Realizing she wouldn’t be fit to raise this child, she initially considers an abortion. When she reaches the clinic, however, she changes her mind and decides to put the baby up for adoption instead. Juno manages to find a couple – Mark and Vanessa – willing to agree to a closed adoption.
Within seconds of the film beginning in earnest, I find myself praising the dialogue. Writer Diablo Cody seems to channel the best aspects of Wes Anderson’s quirky, yet down-to-Earth style. The characters’ dialogue manages to be snappy and endearing at the same time. The title character is reaching emotional maturity, and she doesn’t see eye-to-eye with her stepmother, Brenda. Contrary to what one would initially believe, said stepmother, despite being highly abrasive, does make sure Juno is healthy during her pregnancy. She even manages to tell off the rude ultrasound technician when the latter expresses skepticism over Juno’s ability to raise a child. Meanwhile, Juno doesn’t have a high opinion of her biological mother. The only sign we receive that she even exists is that she sends her daughter a cactus every Valentine’s Day.
Indeed, it doesn’t take long to realize the writing manages to be amazingly subversive at times. This is especially evident in how Juno and Mark bond over their shared love of punk rock and horror films. However, despite what one would think, Juno favors the masters of yesteryear, including The Stooges, Patti Smith, and The Runaways, whereas Mark gravitates towards the artists they inspired – most notably Sonic Youth. There are subtle instances of these subversive tendencies throughout the film as well – such as the fact that Juno’s father, Mac, takes the news rather well, not shaming her at all.
I also have to give this film credit for not going down the obvious route by focusing heavily on Juno’s classmates and their reaction to her pregnancy. Although she does encounter more than a fair share of boorish students, many of them treat Juno well. The narrative also goes out of its way to establish that Juno, despite her decidedly strange circumstances, doesn’t take any grief from these people, and puts them in their place with astonishing ease.
Then again, part of what makes Juno such a standout effort is that, despite its lighthearted tone, the film doesn’t shy away from dealing with heavy subject matter. Juno goes through a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the film – as one would expect someone who became pregnant before legally being considered an adult. Furthermore, Mark is eventually shown to have a darker side to him. Vanessa is completely on board with adopting a baby, but Mark is hesitant – and not for a sympathetic reason. He believes adopting a child would only get in the way of his dream to become a real musician. He, like Juno, fits the archetypal hipster mold, but while such attitudes are befitting of those with little real-world experience, it makes adults look exceptionally immature when they don’t grow out of it. His creepiest moment occurs when he invites Juno to dance with him. Though Juno initially obliges, it is at this point she realizes just what a lowlife he truly is.
Juno ended up being one of the most praised independent films of its day. Despite this, critics had a few problems with how the narrative presented itself. From a superficial standpoint, it’s easy to read the basic premise of the film as an anti-choice allegory. Indeed, Diablo Cody herself went on record to say she would never have written Juno as it was had anyone perceived that way. Although I can see why many people would come down to that conclusion, I don’t entirely agree with it. Speaking as someone who believes a woman should have the right to choose, it’s possible to forget when advocating for such a cause that not getting an abortion is an entirely valid option. Granted, Juno’s decision is unfortunately juxtaposed with a fellow student conducting a one-person protest advocating her pro-life views. However, the narrative doesn’t suggest she influenced Juno’s decision. In fact, when you consider the film briefly touches upon the very real problem of right-wing fanatics marching into abortion clinics and murdering the inhabitants in cold blood, the practitioners are portrayed fairly sympathetically.
Otherwise, I would say the biggest issue with the film concerns one character in particular. While I like how these revelations are set up in a way that allows the audience to comprehend a character’s morality without the narrative drilling it into their heads, this proposition doesn’t quite work for Vanessa. To be completely fair, she is more sympathetic than Mark, and her frustration towards him is understandable. The problem is that she is completely convinced once she has the child, everything will fall into place. This is in spite of the fact that she is arguably not well psychologically. She is frequently snippy and anxious while missing basic social cues. With other behaviors, many viewers came down to the conclusion that she has borderline personality disorder. Having a baby cannot cure what is going on with her – in fact, because she has just divorced Mark, raising a child as a single mother is arguably going to make things worse. There is an art to ambiguous storytelling, but when a narrative refuses to take a stance on important details, it comes across as the writers not thinking through their implications.
Juno is an enjoyable film that is utterly unapologetic about its idealistic outlook. There are certain aspects that definitely could have been expanded upon, but otherwise, it presents a nice, minimalistic story complemented with great acting performances. How likely I am to recommend it is admittedly a little less straightforward. This is one of those films that you will either adore or despise by the time the credits roll. I personally feel that the criticisms are more of a reflection of the changing social attitudes since 2007 and that the negative perceptions aren’t to last. That being said, they’re not wholly without merit. It’s not a difficult sit, so I can at least recommend giving it a try; just don’t force yourself to like it if it loses you.
Final Score: 6/10