Another white woman has a baby – Critics drool over slack “Juno”.

juno.jpg

What is it about any movie that shows a hip white woman bringing her baby to term that causes film critics to temporarily lose their minds? “Knocked Up” was given a free pass and Juno is inspiring some of the worst film criticism I’ve ever seen.

The truth is that “Juno” is a calculatedly juvenile film with an immensely appealing main actress (Ellen Page), fake meta-dialog, and an inability to follow-through on its central theme of abandonment.

Juno is constructed so as to allow moviegoers to feel as if they’ve gone through a significant emotional journey, without doing the work. One way it blunts serious emotions is through the use of hipster patois in the place of real dialog. Rob Harvilla, a music critic with the Village Voice described this best:

“Teenagers who talk like thirtysomething screenwriters. “Cool” parents who talk like teenage screenwriters. A 16-year-old heroine who actually says things like “Just looking to secure a hasty abortion!” and “Just dealing with things way outside my maturity level!” and (grits teeth) “Swear to blog!”. Just appallingly cute cute cute CUTE CUTE.”

The cutesy dialog has been universally panned in reviews, but its also serving to throw critics off serious discussion of the film’s major shortcomings. A.O. Scott in the New York Times:

“…not many are so daring in their treatment of teenage pregnancy, which this film flirts with presenting not just as bearable but attractive. Kids, please! Heed the cautionary whale. But in the meantime, have a good time at “Juno.” Bring your parents, too.”

Scott cannot resist writing in a similar style to the dialog, in fact thinking in this teenage way. “Heed the cautionary whale. But in the meantime, have a good time at “Juno.” I don’t know anyone personally who has brought a pregnancy to term and given up her baby, but I can imagine it’s a lot more painful and less attractive than is portrayed in Juno. No amount of squiggly animated fonts and warbly hypersincere outsider-style singing can make up for that fact, and pretending otherwise is the opposite of daring.

At one point in the film, after he adoptive couple has seen their relationship dissolve, the character Juno gives voice to the main point of the movie. She says something like: “I just want to know that love can last. That two people can love each other and it’s not going to go away.” A movie-sequence childbirth follows, then a shot of Juno saying she does not want to see her newborn, followed by a single tear coursing down her face. Cut to a postpartum Juno, happily riding her bike, spitting wisecracks and singing twee duets, with the afraid-of-his-own-shadow Paul Cera.

I’m not being a moralist here, I don’t want to see the character Juno punished for giving up her baby. But it’s an unsatisfying experience to have the main theme of the movie evaporate, and to instead be fed a dose of indy candy rather than a resolution, or at least a coherent point of view. Critics have responded to this shortcoming by either ignoring it – offering, as Scott does, a blithe positive assessment of the films earnestness, or else, as Stephanie Zacharek does in Salon, constructing tortuous “filmic” criticism:

“Juno” is partly about the necessity of making choices for ourselves, but it’s also about knowing when we need to accept help from others. That idea is never spelled out in so many words; it comes through in the actors’ faces. “Language is the house man lives in,” Jean-Luc Godard told us, borrowing from Martin Heidegger, in “Two or Three Things I Know About Her.” There are lots of words in “Juno.” But in the end, it’s really all about language.”

OK I’m going to let the royal “we” pass. Her evasive argument reminds me of “cold-readings” by psychics, who employ verbal tricks to keep their marks engaged: “you’re a shy person, but if it’s something you care about you have strong opinions, although you mainly keep them to yourself, but when the chips are down…” Zacharek’s version is: “it’s all about language, but not the talking kind, but instead the kind you find in actor’s faces, when they are letting you know they need help, which is really what it’s all about, just ask Jean-Luc Godard, when he borrows from Martin Heiddeger.”

Anything to keep abandonment at bay.

Perhaps it’s a zeitgeist thing, there seems to be a generalized post 9/11 anxiety about the future of mankind, for example the spate of recent movies about apocalyptic threats to
civilization (cf. “Cloverfield”, “I am Legend”). Combine this with role-uncertainty created by modern decisions to delay childbearing (cf. Lori Gottlieb’s article “Marry Him” in the Atlantic Monthly), and the result may be that a simple squiggly-lined movie about a young woman’s lack of anxiety in futhering the human race has an appeal that is irresistable. Just not to me.

Swear to blog.

  1. The real theme was NOT about abandonment. The main theme was about RELATIONSHIPS, and can they last or not. Not only did this movie not abandon it’s original, you didn’t understand the movie. You missed the point completely. The mother needed to be mentioned at the beginning because it’s part of what gave Juno a reason to ask her father if relationships do last. Her mother leaving her father, plus what happened between Mark and Vanessa, caused Juno to lose faith.

  2. To me the film purported to be about independence and self-definition, but failed to deal with the cost of independence, which often is the end of relationships.

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