I’m not a fan of The Breakfast Club. For a movie that everyone claims to exemplify High School life, I found it to be very false, even as a kid. Never did I meet fellow classmates that were as singular as the characters John Hughes presented. There was never the “jock” or the “nerd” or the “outcast”, and I went to a lot of schools. What Hughes did was create simplified versions that everyone then held on to. It was all more interesting and complicated than that. I’ve always found The Breakfast Club to be the ideal example of Hollywood reality. Hughes’s other film Some Kind of Wonderful hits a little closer, and aside from the slow clap in the final moments of the film Lucas (not John Hughes) hit the head just about right (the original ending did not contain the slow clap but was more morose.) I had the pleasure of seeing Lucas screened this last year and was surprised at how well it has withstood the test of time. It’s too bad the same can’t be said for The Breakfast Club. Now we have Juno, a film many have compared to the films of John Hughes. The writer Diablo Cody has been called a writer who’s got the voice of our youth down pat. I would agree with that, at least more so than they said Hughes did during his time. When the High School characters in Juno aren’t living and breathing pop culture idiosyncrasies, they carry all the uncertain starts and stops and pregnant pauses of people who aren’t wise enough to know the right thing to say immediately or at all. They have their own language, their own way of viewing the world, one that befuddles the adults in the film. One that befuddles me to some degree – does this mean I’m getting old? It feels to me that the quantity of eccentric High Schoolers has grown over the years – at least as far as independent films are concerned.
The title character Juno, is one such person. She’s lively and verbally parlays with her best friend in a similar way that the characters in Brick did, though without the need to foreshadow darker happenings. And part of the thing that makes the voice of Juno so interesting is that she has enough happening in her life to worry about darker happenings, because she’s pregnant, she just doesn’t let on that she’s worried about it. The nifty Ellen Page grapples with the role of Juno. Page articulates the contradiction that is Juno, at once comfortable in her own skin but uncertain who she is. The nonchalance that Juno brings to every situation she’s in slowly begins to break down as the film unfolds. And watching Page as Juno reach out for many of the wrong things is sometimes difficult, but you believe it.
She has a lot more than pregnancy to deal with. The father Paulie Bleeker, a wonderful Michael Cera, who plays another variation of the awkward young man forced to grow up too quickly that he’s played wonderfully before, may be in love her. But they’re best friends. Juno claims that they had sex because she was bored. Paulie vehemently disagrees, because there was a particular show on TV that they could have watched instead. I sometimes wish I could say things like that, but I refrain, because although I know there’s simple truths like this in the way we act, it sounds pretty ridiculous when trying to talk someone into how they actually feel by use of an unwatched t.v. show. Bleeker does. Of all the scenes in the film the ones shared by Juno and Paulie rang the truest for me.
There’s also the potential married couple that want to adopt Juno’s unborn baby. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner as the expectant parents to be tie for the best parts of the film for me. They brought a necessary complexity to the story and to Juno’s life. Juno’s need for her baby to be a part of an “ideal family structure” is shaken when her effect on the character’s takes an unsettling turn. Garner is especially heartbreaking as the wife who wants so much to be a mother, but Bateman shouldn’t be overlooked as we see a darker and more selfish side to his smug boyish charm, one that becomes a little creepy.
J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, as Juno’s father and stepmother, also give great performances.
Diablo has the courage to deal with young females as sexually frustrated and at times just as confused beings as their male counterparts. Many films have viewed the young female mind as whimsical and filled with romance. Any realistic feeling of budding sexual exploration from a female perspective is skewed by the fantasy of male horniness and how they’re looking for their ideal of the perfect score. It usually leads to very synthetic scenes that end up treating the female’s part in the situation as either a hot chick finally willing to please the guy even though he’s a jerk or a fantasy moment under the heavy hand of soft light. Diablo writes against these constructs that male writer’s fall prey to.
Those are all the good things about the film, but I found myself feeling anxious for a long period of time. And I think that much of it has to do with Jason Reitman’s direction. Here we have a quirky, off-beat script, with characters that feel real enough to hold strong for two hours. Reitman however feels that it’s not enough and pulls methods on how to make a cute uplifting movie from the book of indie how to’s. The same one that Little Miss Sunshine borrowed from, another film that was overwrought with indie cuteness. But these are uplifting films about characters who go against the social norms, and the directors want us to know that. Reitman desperately wants us to know that. A casually animated opening undermines the seriousness of Juno’s situation, white letters are scrawled in a child’s chicken scratching above the screen to let us know when the seasons come and go (these scratched letters have no relevance to anything else in the script – but oh, isn’t so “cute”), the songs that score the film are all whispering whimsy like they would rather have scored a Wes Anderson film. Decisions like these butted heads with the soft light moments in the film, moments where instead of continuing to deal with how the character’s felt and how difficult the situation is, when character’s are faced with real moments where they have to seriously talk from the heart (which is a tough thing to do) they are lit by a soft light and easily give the necessary sage advice that makes everything right as rain. It wasn’t until Reitman allowed the script to become heavy and quirky on it’s own that those feelings of anxiousness went away. I liked Reitman’s first film, Thank You for Smoking, but many of his choices here would have been better suited for another film.
This film is being praised by the Hollywood elitists and the critics who like to see smart uplifting indie works. I do too, and I think Juno is a smart film and a thoroughly enjoyable one, one that could have been uplifting in a way, but because of an overpowering sense of what it wants to be and the urge to force feed the audience as to what it thinks it is from the very beginning, ends up falling just short and at times falls flat.