Saturday, January 26, 2008

Movie Review: Juno

Wait a minute. Someone told me this had space aliens.

Juno, directed by Jason Reitman. Screenplay by Diablo Cody. Starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, and Jennifer Garner. Dancing Elk Productions: 2007. Runtime 97 minutes. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

See other reviews here.

The rest of the Catholic blogosphere has already swooned over this movie and moved on to better things, but here at The Sci Fi Catholic, we're proud to be always one step behind the pack. Critics are virtually unanimous in praising this movie, so in order to maintain my reputation as a cynical curmudgeon, I'd like to point you to the comments by dissenting critic David Edelstein (hat tip to Jeffrey Overstreet).

In case you don't know, the reason we Catholics are swooning is because Juno, besides being sassy and jam-packed with quotable bon mots, has a pro-life theme.

Story revolves around sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), who discovers she's pregnant after a tryst with her passive wiener of a best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), who plays the effeminate counterpart to Juno's tomboy personality. The story follows Juno as she takes it all in stride and prepares to give the baby away to a seemingly perfect couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), who as it turns out have serious problems of their own.

It is, as you have heard, a witty screenplay. It isn't exactly deep; there isn't a lot of philosophical subtext under the characters' sarcastic barbs, and Diablo Cody is not the return of Oscar Wilde. However, it's undeniable that this is one smart and funny script, even if it achieves its quirks largely through obscure pop culture references. But we at The Sci Fi Catholic can't condemn anyone for obscure pop culture references, so we're obligated to give the film a thumb up. We may hope that Cody will produce more substantial fare in the future. This is one Hollywood screenwriter I'd actually like to get paid.

The message, too, is generally positive: divorce is bad, abortion is bad, people who use terms like "intercourse" and "sexually active" are losers, married men who feel unready to have children are losers, and it's weird to put condoms on bananas. All these are beliefs that I as a Catholic can heartily support.

The film's major weakness, easy to overlook, is that it is a combination of a teen pregnancy story and a love story. Because the teen pregnancy story stays center-stage, the love story gets short shrift, so the film's climax comes out of left field. Similarly, several matters are thrown at the viewer purely for humor, but receive no development: early on, Juno delivers a monologue on how jocks really prefer geeky girls, and a couple of funny scenes deal with a cheerleader (Olivia Thirlby) who has a crush on a frumpy science teacher. Then there's the funny romantic argument between a couple of chem lab partners (Stephen Christopher Parker and Candice Accola). All of these are hilarious, but they have no real point. Other elements of the narrative, however, are developed in a believable manner with a solid, steady pace. I don't want to give away any details, but Jason Bateman's performance is particularly good. He and Ellen Page really crackle when they're on screen together.

Speaking of the love story, I was surprised, and maybe a little disappointed, at the film's conclusion (spoiler alert). About halfway through, I figured I knew where it was going. I assumed Juno and Bleeker would fall in love and keep the baby, and I was half right. I'm not going to complain, however, because I should consider it a good thing when movies don't follow the numbers exactly the way I expect them to.

Some Christians might complain about these protagonists who, having already had a baby, don't get married at the film's end, but Juno, who has watched marriages crumble around her, is naturally suspicious of the institution of marriage and says as much in a conversation with her father (J. K. Simmons), one of the film's more moving scenes. This is a story of young people who have to find their way among the debris of institutions their elders have destroyed, so some distrust of institutions should be expected. Besides, it was written by a stripper, so what do you want?

Speaking of distrusting institutions, our friend Christine at Catholic Media Review has a statement on the movie that deserves address:

Before I get into it, I have to ask: Did anyone else spot the 'no religion' sticker inside Juno's locker door in a school scene pretty early on? It was a cross with a red-circle around it, and a red line through it. It only showed for a couple seconds, but I considered it a negative subliminal message.

I think we're getting too sensitive. Actually, Christine is mistaken. The sticker does not say "No Religion" but "Bad Religion." It's the name of a rock band, the sort of rock band a character like Juno would probably listen to. Furthermore, the message is not "subliminal"; it's right in front of you. If it were subliminal, you wouldn't be able to see it. You also wouldn't need to worry about it because according to my Psych 101 class, subliminal messages don't work.*

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Juno:

Myth Level: N/A

Quality: High (good production with great script and excellent performances)

Ethics/Religion: High (mature themes, sexual references, positive messages)

*At least that's what the aliens want us to think.

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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