Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Juno Reaction

Yes, that's a play on the band, referring to the movie. =P

So this movie is as they say, a runaway success. I went to see it with my wife the other day (saw Cloverfield the same day, yay!) and while it was even funnier than I expected, what surprised me was just how sophisticated and utterly non-judgmental the entire thing was.

Before we go on, there are spoilers in here.

Be warned.

Regardless, let me start with a reaction to the film. My wife teaches yoga and exercises with a friend down the street from where I live. They have an interesting friendship that allows them to be really irritated with each other regularly yet continue to be friends. That says a lot about its strength. So I wasn't surprised when she told me about a somewhat acrimonious exchange they had over the movie Juno, yet they still had a fine time together.

Her friend had a problem with Jason Bateman's character. He was a bad guy. She said he just needed to grow up and be the adult that his family needed. She even went so far as to assume that he somehow sabotaged his wife's earlier pregnancies. Where she found sympathy for Garner's character and her plight, she had only condemnation for Bateman's.

At first glance, it almost seems like she has a valid point. In the film he abandons his wife and nearly destroys her hopes of adopting a child all so he can go make music, the dream of probably every other teenager in America. Seems pretty straightforward in its implications, doesn't it?

But what she failed to understand are the things my wife tried to point out to her, to no avail. To paraphrase her position: No, he should have just grown up and dealt with what he'd been given no matter the cost. He should be what she wanted him to be, not what he wanted to be.

First, though, it's important to recognize a critical element of the film, one that seems overlooked by many. That element is its lack of judgment.

Juno is quite possibly the first teenage pregnancy film I've seen that can potentially appeal to anyone regardless of their politics. At no point does it dwell on implications of immorality, the gender divide, or responsibility. Certainly each is touched on but there is never any censure nor is there any promotion of politics, gender or otherwise.

The film is what it is, and it isn't trying to be a message about teenage pregnancy so much as it is...a love story.

You heard me, this movie is about our hearts. It's about how we see the world and interact with its absurdities and cope with situations that have gone beyond our control. It's about how we can love and hate all in the same breath, how we can go on and on and sometimes find out only too late that what we want isn't what we thought it was.

Jason Bateman plays a character who was once an aspiring rock musician but who has given up that dream for the family he felt he was supposed to have, for his wife. As a culture we overvalue emotional sacrifice, and their relationship shows us the damage it can do in the end.

He was relegated to a single room in the house, with no other trappings that spoke of him at all anywhere to be seen. His wife pushed his 'adolescent' hobby - even though that adolescent hobby helped pay their bills - out of sight. She was embarrassed by it.

That my wife's friend thinks all he needs to do is 'grow up' shows a fundamental lack of understanding. He wasn't being childish and he wasn't being selfish. On the contrary, for the first time in his life, he was being true to himself and in the process, being truthful to his wife. That life wasn't what he wanted and he knew that he wouldn't be happier with a child, that perhaps he might even be less happy.

His wife kept him tucked away and out of sight (sadly like I see happen all the time in the real world), refusing to acknowledge who and what he was, quite possibly what she'd initially fallen in love with.

Lest you think I am vilifying her, Jennifer Garner's character was terrified. She wanted desperately to be a mother, and all that aloof demeanor wasn't callousness or any real reflection of her internal character. On the contrary, it was a poignant depiction of her fear: afraid that she'd again be disappointed, afraid that she wouldn't and that she'd have to be a mother, she tried to armor herself against inevitable disappointment. Perhaps it was even a method of dealing with the increased emotional distance in her marriage.

That's the beauty of the film. It never criticizes, it never preaches, and it never flinches. People do the things people we know are doing. Beyond the quirky dialogue the movie feels real and unforced, it manages to tell its story without trying to wrangle tears and without aiming blame anywhere at all.

Sometimes the life we imagined isn't the life we get. I suppose 'sometimes' is a terrific understatement: no one I know has the life they thought they wanted. We all have the lives we stumbled into and we have to deal with them the best we can.

Some of us are undoubtedly happier than others, but I have to worry when people come away from the film having missed the point. I have to worry when a friend of my wife's can only see that people should shoehorn themselves into misery just to satisfy her idea of being grown up, an idea that amounts to little more than conforming to her wishes at the expense of their very soul.

We do this to each other, we tell each other that we should do what makes us happy, that we shouldn't worry about success or money and that we should find the calling that makes our hearts sing. But when people try to do just that, they become selfish, childish, or foolish. Suddenly, the quest to find ourselves must take a place behind the needs of those around us or we are vilified for being selfish children who need to grow up.

This film encourages us all to look past the surface to find our hearts and to find the hearts of those we care about. It encourages us to believe the best of each other. It never tries to paint a villain, only to show us that if we don't try to see each other and ourselves for what we are, it's easy to misunderstand what's happening in our lives.

Juno isn't really a teen pregnancy movie, it's a love story.