Maggie McMuffin revisits Juno and recalls how, for many women who grew up with this film, identifying with the main character is both pleasurable and fraught.
It sounds so silly now, but Juno was my Zeitgeist. Landing in theaters December of my senior year of high school, it quickly became THE movie to watch. Coming from a school known for high pregnancy rates and precociousness, my class ate it up.
You see, we were the kids that reviews said didn’t exist. We traded in quippy dialogue and naming obscure bands. We were all artsy kids in honors classes. The movie was inescapable, especially after we got copies of the soundtrack. To this day, listening to it takes me immediately back. To curling up on an air mattress after losing my virginity. To getting ready for prom. To nights spent driving around town laughing and thinking we were so mature because we knew all the words to Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”
And me, I was a drama kid. Like the epitome of it. And during my last semester of high school, I was in a community theater production of Guys and Dolls. Talking about Sylvia Plath attracted the attention of a 35-year-old man named Mark who would give me rides home after rehearsal. Rides turned to long talks sitting in my driveway while I convinced myself my mother was sitting inside having no idea what was going on. Mark told me how special I was. How smart I was. How pretty. I was 18 and still felt awkward. I had only had sex a few months ago. I was going off to college soon and surely there I would blossom because clearly I was meant for great things. Mark talked to me about poetry and things he had written in college and how we could drive anywhere except for his house for some reason and quoted Billy Joel lyrics. I was smitten. It felt a little naughty but more like I was proving that I was the most worldly 18-year-old ever who would take lovers twice my age and enrich their lives simply by being me.
A week before the production opened I learned that Mark was married with three children.
Needless to say, it made things awkward.
Mark gave me one last ride home where I demanded to know why he had lied to me. He said he had never lied he simply hadn’t told me about that.
“Three kids and a wife seems like a pretty big thing to withhold.”
He gave me some speech about being in the Navy and compartmentalizing and not wanting to let things pass by and me, being 18 and committed to this script, kissed him. Just once.
And then I pulled back and said no. No, I couldn’t do this.
“Because I’m young. I’m…I’m basically a kid, aren’t I? And I don’t feel bad about this now, but I will someday, and I’m too young to live with that regret.”
I got out of the car and ran into my childhood home, which was appropriately enough being packed up into boxes so me and my mother could both move before I graduated in a couple of weeks. Suddenly having a life like the movies didn’t seem so fun. Suddenly being adult just seemed messy. Where was my adventure? Was being an adult just lying to each other and worrying about money?
I told my friends what happened. They set up rides for me the rest of the show run.
I went from watching Juno regularly to not being able to stomach it. It hit too close to home and the gnawing guilt that had settled in my stomach. When Mark reached out to me three months into my freshman year, I simply asked, “Are you still married?” and haven’t heard from him since.
The thing about being a spectacular 18-year-old is that you are still 18. No matter what other extraordinary qualities you possess, the key attractive thing about you is that you are 18. And men going through bored spells or who have a need to hold onto their youth will grab the nearest young person they can find. I spent years thinking I wasn’t as special as Mark had said I was and then realized that, no, I was special, it just wasn’t as important as my age. When older men tell teenagers how smart they are, what they really mean is “smart enough to hold a conversation but not smart enough to see through my bullshit.” It’s very easy to impress a teenager. It’s easy to hold them and give them compliments they’ve never heard before. To give them scenes from a movie.
I look back now and it’s funny but still sad. I think of how sad and boring Mark’s life was that he tried to cheat on his wife with a girl still in and then barely out of high school. I no longer blame myself, but I do feel hurt. And during all of that, Juno really stopped being funny.
For years, I thought it was because I felt guilty but, watching the movie years later, I am just overcome with embarrassment. How did I not see that guy’s midlife crisis? How did I let myself believe that I had anything to offer him except my youth? And I feel the same way about Mark Loring, Jason Bateman’s character in this film, as I did about Mark whatever his last name was in real life. It is obvious Mark Loring doesn’t want a child. It’s obvious he’s been sabotaging adoption plans and wants to be a rock star still. It’s obvious from their first meeting that he needs to stop talking to the teenager.
Watching this movie ten years later, it is so clear that Juno is a child. I can’t see why people who reviewed this movie when it came out were so insistent that no teenager acts like this. When I was 18, I wondered what Paulie Bleeker was doing in this movie so much when Juno doesn’t seem to be wholly interested in him all the time, but now I see it’s to show how differently she acts when there are no adults around to perform for. When Juno just gets to be a teenager, she’s awkward and doubtful of herself. She can’t go through with the abortion, she mentions having an Adderall breakdown*, she worries about what her peers think. Alternately, she verbally spars with her stepmother Bren, acts super nonchalant around Vanessa, and tries to one-up Mark on obscure pop culture knowledge.
Whereas ten years ago I could proudly say that I was Juno now I’m like…oh yeah that was me.
Let’s stop talking about me though. Let’s ignore that this is the most intense I have felt the ten-year difference on one of these reviews. Let’s just look at if this is a good movie.
Sure, Diablo Cody’s dialogue is sometimes a bit much. She tries so hard to be cool and to get some memorable one liners in and they just sort of scream insecurity but that kind of works for the characters. Maybe that’s why she wrote such good teenagers. Especially teenagers who are going through adult things for a spell and are trying to appear collected. After all, Juno’s bestie Leah accompanies her to appointments and the birth, supporting her friend through a major transition. Bleeker, despite knowing he won’t be a dad, gives Juno space only after checking in with her about if she needs anything from him. He’s clearly terrified over having fathered a child, but he’s stepping up and ready to be as responsible as he can be. And Juno, well, she’s just trying to get by. She’s dealing with her body changing, stigma from her peers, other adults judging her…it’s a lot. Of course she’s going to front that she’s totally an adult, even if it means making the mistake of trusting Mark.
But in the end, Juno gets to do both. She is able to jump back into normal teenage life but it’s only after she makes her own decisions and manufactures a happy ending. Not just for her but for Vanessa and the baby.
When it’s revealed how little Mark wants a child, Juno realizes that the less cool Vanessa Loring is still the perfect mother. Whereas Juno’s ideal adopters at the start was a cool dude who works as a graphic designer and “has an Asian girlfriend,” ** she realizes that being cool =/= being mature and still gives the baby to Vanessa.
Speaking of, we need to talk about Jennifer Garner in this film because she is astounding. At the time, I don’t think I cared whether or not she got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar but, while watching this, my friends and I were like, “She won, right?” [Ed. The Oscar went to Tilda Swinton.] The moment that truly stands out is just the look on her face when she asks how Juno is feeling and is told, “Just be glad it’s not you.” It’s a moment of restrained hurt. We actually see very little of Vanessa compared to the rest of the cast, but it is so easy to track her arc. And this cannot be credited mainly to Cody because Vanessa could easily have been a one-dimensional character who flitted in and out of Juno’s story. Instead, Garner gives us a woman who wants nothing as badly as she wants to be a mother. Who has a lot of privilege and wealth but who has probably amassed these possessions and perfect house because if she does everything right maybe she can finally have a baby. If she can make the perfect outside environment maybe it will override whatever it is that prevents her body from carrying a child. And when her plans to adopt are nearly thwarted FOR A SECOND TIME by her deadbeat husband, she divorces him. The way Garner tiredly criticizes her husband is not hysterics. Instead, Garner gives Vanessa a level exhaustion that says she has had these conversations a million times and cannot have them again.
You guys. Allison freaking Janney is in top form in this movie and she’s not even giving the most standout performance. That’s how damn good Garner is as Vanessa. And I say that as someone who is lukewarm on her in everything else.
But while we discuss Allison Janney, let’s also bring it around to what this movie is really about: mothers. This movie was touted as being so much a movie about teenagers that people missed that it’s a film centered on three mothers: Juno (biological), Vanessa (adopted), and Bren (step). While Juno and her father do have a touching scene, Bren is the one we see counseling her the most. Bren warns her to stay away from Mark Loring, goes to the ultrasound with her, is honest about Juno’s sexual agency when her pregnancy is confessed. Juno and Bren argue and disagree, but they love each other and Juno certainly sees Bren as more of a mother than her biological one, who left when she was a child and sends her a cactus once a year. Bren is also the biological mother of Juno’s half-sister Liberty Bell, and we get to learn from her what being a mother is like. She advises Juno on pregnancy and reassures Vanessa when she holds her son for the first time as well as the one to identify Vanessa with the word “mother,” the title Vanessa has reached for the entire film. Vanessa is never seen as being less than for her infertility. Rather, Juno muses that the baby always belonged to her. When a nurse spots her looking in the nursery, she asks, “Would you like to meet your son?” meaning that the hospital knows full well who that child belongs to and respects it. Vanessa is not just given respect as a mother, but also given the place in movies that normally goes to fathers. Standing outside that window, waiting for a chance to meet the child someone else bore, is a masc-coded moment, but here it is given over to a mother, an adopted one no less, and treated with the same joy.
It would be easy to go into mythological allegories about this being a maiden/mother/crone maternal triangle, but I think that’s giving Cody too much credit. Still, she wrote a movie about the different forms motherhood can take and I don’t understand why that doesn’t get spotlighted more.
But then again, it’s no surprise. We look down on mothers, on teenagers, and on teenage mothers most of all. It makes sense that ten years ago this movie was reduced to teenage larks about unwanted pregnancy. If we don’t respect the subject matter, why would we respect the story? And this film isn’t even overtly feminist or, like Hard Candy, even a “misandrist” film. While Mark certainly sucks, the other men are pretty aces. It in no way shames fathers in its attempts to focus on mothers and actually faults Mark for not wanting to be an active one in favor of chasing dreams he needs to fucking let go of. Fathers maybe aren’t essential, but boy do they help!
Is it easy to tie the concept of maturity to being a parent? Yes, of course it is. But it works. And by doing so Diablo Cody gave us an imperfect script with a damn good heart that ages far better than any guy who played rock music in the ’90s.
Random Thoughts and Footnotes
* Hi this is Kiki, one of Maggie’s co-watchers. The number one thing that annoys me about this movie? Juno mentions that she has Adderall she’s willing to sell. Now, if this is just a “I have illegal Adderall I will share with you” thing, that’s annoying enough, because YOU’RE THE REASON I HAVE TO JUMP THROUGH TEN MILLION HOOPS EVERY 90 DAYS IN ORDER TO KEEP GETTING ACCESS TO THE MEDICINE I NEED TO FUNCTION AS AN ADULT. But also: If Juno legitimately NEEDS Adderall, she can’t continue taking it while pregnant—so why don’t we ever discuss the Adderall withdrawal? Like even if she’s not on it all the time, Adderall is an upper and pregnancy hormones are typically downers, so right away there’s gonna be a GIGANTIC MOOD SWING that could potentially be dangerous BUT ALSO can we talk about how a person who requires Adderall to function in society (see: Me) would have serious difficulty suddenly being yanked off it cold-turkey and not having access to it in order to complete daily tasks? OH NO WAIT ADD IS JUST AN ACCESSORY CONDITION AND NOT REAL SO IT’S NOT WORTH DISCUSSING NORMALLY.
** Diablo Cody has a weird thing with Asian women. In this it’s like an Asian girlfriend is just an accessory to prove how cool a white man is. The only Asian woman we see is a lone high schooler protesting abortion at the clinic Juno goes to and who doesn’t speak English correctly. There are other references. What is your deal, Diablo Cody?
– Paulie Bleeker, high school track star, eating a hot pocket for breakfast is such an accurate representation of teenage health.
– Leah is seriously the best friend ever. She is with Juno every step of the way on this and it’s noteworthy that, when she offers to call the abortion clinic for Juno, it’s made clear she’s done this for other classmates. She defends a girl that Juno trash-talks due to jealousy because it seems like unwarranted hostility. Leah is here for other women and I love her.
– Kiki pointed out that Juno often wears a red hoodie like the one Ellen Page wore in Hard Candy. She is usually wearing this when talking to Mark. Possible accident OR BRILLIANT COSTUME DESIGN???
– Two major life tips from this film for any teenager girls who might be reading.
1) Men will always say the best time for rock music was when they were performing. They are wrong.
2) They will tell you constantly how mature you are until you question their plans for you. At which point they will remind you how young you are. If you don’t leave when he says the first thing, just walk out the door when he says the second.
– If there is any one thing I would point out to prove that Juno is a child, it’s that the concept of being paid to be pregnant never occurs to her and she flat out turns down the offer, only worrying about medical costs. Bitch, you could have had tuition covered.
– After watching the movie, I listened to the soundtrack and I highly recommend you do the same. It totally holds up and it sent me right back to high school just go do it you will thank me.