Monday, 11 June 2012

Juno (2007)

Dir. Jason Reitman
Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is a sixteen-year-old girl living in Dancing Elk, Minnesota, and she is, like, too cool for school. She, like, radiates confidence and über-hipness. For shizz. She spends her time kicking it old school. listening to Iggy and the Stooges and watching Dario Argento slasher pics. I know – honest to blog, how cool is she for a sixteen-year-old? Oh, and she has a best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), and she just got pregnant by him. So she needs to nip that in the bud because she’s heard that pregnancy often leads to “you know… an infant”. Wizard. 

And thus does Juno speak. She announces that her waters have broken by crying out “Thundercats are go!” In many ways she is the idealised way we could wish our sixteen-year-old selves were: articulate, funny, confident, opinionated, has taste beyond her years. She plays the guitar and knows – knows! – that the boys want her. I’m not sure if writer Diablo Cody (yes, the former stripper who won the Academy Award for her Juno screenplay) was ever quite so precocious, or whether Juno is just how she wished she could have been. The only cloud on the horizon is just that she seduced Paulie and now she’s up the spout and she doesn’t think that she can go through with an abortion. So she arranges to give her baby up for adoption once born, and even identifies the couple to whom it shall be given: Mark and Vanessa Loring. Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) is just a tad anally retentive who seems to want a baby to complete her picture perfect family; Mark (Jason Bateman) was in a band, listens to Sonic Youth and watches Hershell Gordon Lewis B-movies. Needless to say Juno gets on with him famously.  

What is coolness? I would define it as an imperviousness to outside problems, a refusal to be phased. Juno has that in spades. She is remarkably blasé about being pregnant – look at how she breaks the news to Paulie, sitting on his lawn in a reconstruction of the room in which they had made love, sucking on a pipe. The only thing that can affect her is the idea of love. This gets her. When Paulie – at her suggestion – invites someone else to the prom it does upset her. She realises that she does in fact love him. Again, she is quite happy to give away her baby, but she wants the child to go to a loving family. When it becomes apparent that there are problems in Mark and Vanessa’s relationship this really affects her. Of course, she tries to deny it, claiming that she is “just allergic to fine home furnishing.” But this touches off her own abandonment issues from when her mother walked out. Her plea to her father is that “I need to know that two people can stay happy together forever.” 

True love is a kiss and a finger

Even though Mark is way cooler than Vanessa and Juno can relate to him as a friend he has proved himself to be, not to put too fine a point on it, a dick. Whereas Vanessa, for all her uptightness, clearly wants to become a mother more than anything. The subject of babies brings out an insecure fragility to her. But Juno has seen her at the mall with a child, and knows that she would be a good and loving mother. And let’s face it – Juno would be a terrible mum. The idea of her keeping the baby is not once entered into. Yet, for all that, the subject of parenthood is a recurring theme. And frankly it is refreshing to see such a sympathetic picture of parenthood within the MacGuff household. The adults are pretty cool, and cope with the unplanned pregnancy even though they are shocked by it. Her father (J. K. Simmons) has a light, humorous approach to parenthood. He greets his daughter with a friendly “Hey there, big puffy version of Junebug”, he jokingly threatens his younger daughter that he will “kick your little monkey butt” and he thanks the Lorings for “having me and my irresponsible child over” to their house. Juno also has a step-mother. Usually in fiction there is only one kind of step-mother: the wicked kind. That is not the case here. Bren (played by Allison Janney, last seen as Penny’s wicked mother in Hairspray) is supportive of her step-daughter. Her views on the news that Juno is pregnant is a succinct “I think that kids get bored and have intercourse.” She may be a church-ger but she is not in the least judgemental. She gives an insolent ultrasound technician a verbal dressing down (prompting an awe-struck Juno to breathe “Bren! You’s a dick! I love it!”) and is also there for Juno when she gives birth. 

It is the dialogue that makes the film a delight. I’m not sure that in reality one would ever find a grocery store clerk coming out with lines about a pregnancy test like “That ain’t no Etch-a-Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be un-did, Homeskillet.”  And Juno is preternaturally too cool for school. But there is an infectious joy in the use of language (“Zeus had tons of lays, but I’m pretty sure Juno was his only wife. And apparently she was supposed to be super-beautiful but really mean – like Diana Ross”). I should also mention Bren’s withering comment that “doctors are sadists who like to play God and watch lesser people scream”, a line that creased up my medical professional girlfriend. Does it glamourise teen intercourse? No, it really doesn’t. Is it pushing a pro-life message? Not really – Juno does not have any ethical issues about seeking an abortion. Sue-Lynn may be the world’s worst picketer but she does amaze Juno by informing her that her foetus would already have finger-nails. If anything the film is pro-choice: it is Juno’s body and she decides what she wants to do and then informs her parents and Paulie afterwards. You make mistakes and shit happens – you deal with it as best you can and try not to hurt those around you as you deal with it. The incident even helps to bring her and Bleeker closer together in the long run. 

What have I learnt about Minnesota?
Minnesota isn’t some rough frontier province. Even when Juno travels up to St Cloud (which Bren describes as being out in “East Jesus Nowhere”) we see a very affluent lifestyle, where there are roads lined with McMansion after McMansion, designer living estates, and affluent young professional couples with an interest in interior design. Pregnancy test kits (and gallon jugs of Sunny D) can be bought in convenience stores. Giving birth in hospital costs money. Sixteen-year-olds can drive in Minnesota, and there are even places where they can procure hasty abortions without parental consent; I am not sure how true either of these things are for other states. For the problems and challenges teenagers face, they might as well be in California as Minnesota.  

Minnesota is not California however. They certainly have more pronounced seasonal changes. When winter comes they get snow on the ground. And even if the town in question is fictional, there is an expectation that a name like ‘Dancing Elk’ would not be drastically out of place in Minnesota.

Can we go there?
If one did not know, there are very few clues to lead the audience to notice that Juno is, in fact, set in Minnesota. It certainly doesn’t broadcast the fact. And the town of Dancing Elk is wholely fictional. To be honest, I’ve had some fun trying to work out precisely where on the map it might be supposed to be located. My best guess is a suburb somewhere to the west or south-west of Minneapolis. My reasoning? St Cloud is described as an hour’s drive away. Juno and Paulie’s lab-partner goes to visit his brother at college in Mankato. Just outside of Mankato is the Minneopa State Park (the name ‘Minneopa’ having several possible derivations, one of which being ‘Water of the Dancing Elk’). And Juno makes reference to the fountain at the Ridgedale Mall in Minnetonka.  The Lorings are quite definitely placed in St Cloud however. I can’t help wondering whether it is deliberate that the potential adoptive parents live there considering that the orphanage in The Cider House Rules was called ‘St. Cloud’s’. 

However, none of the film was in fact shot in Minnesota. Filming took place in and around Vancouver in Canada. The  Macguff residence can be found at 4053 32 Avenue West in Dunbar, and Paulie Bleeker lived at 3961 36 Avenue West, four blocks away. The Eric Hamber Secondary School was used for Dancing Elk High, with South Surrey’s Athletic Park track for the sports ground at the school. Town shots took place in Burnaby, with the Hanna Medical Clinic being used. The Coquitlam Center Mall was used for the scene where Juno and Leah bump into Vanessa. Vanessa and Mark’s house was 13926 23 Avenue in White Rock 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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