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Friday, June 13, 2008
Teen pregnancy ain't supposed to be funny
For a long time I was of the opinion I'd see anything with French actress Beatrice Dalle in it. My obsession dated back to 1986's "Betty Blue," which featured a performance by Dalle of such typhoon-like passion and intensity that nothing she's done since even comes close. Still, I indulged her, out of gratitude or infatuation, catching every film I found that had her name in the credits.
This was no easy task, since for every good role the wild child got there have been three or four turkeys. About halfway through her latest, "A l'interieur," opening June 21, which involves pregnancy, lots of blood and scissors (need I say more?), I realized my policy was going to have to change. I walked on it; there are some things your life is not better for having seen.
It got me thinking, though: Why is pregnancy so often portrayed as a horrible bummer on the big screen? You can go back as far as "Rosemary's Baby" or as fast-forward to "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" to see it depicted in the darkest hues possible. Hell, even Padme dies during childbirth in "Revenge of the Sith," a situation that also occurs in "Pan's Labyrinth." Pregnancy is so often seen as something to be terminated, either voluntarily ("Vera Drake") or involuntarily ("Kill Bill"), that you wonder how the happiest event in so many people's lives has become such a trauma on screen.
Along comes "Juno," a lighthearted comedy on teen pregnancy, to try a different approach. "Teen pregnancy" and "comedy" are not words you might expect to see together (kinda like "Bush" and "effective"), but director Jason Reitman ("Thank You For Smoking") shows that getting knocked up at age 16 doesn't have to be the end of the world.
Some will no doubt call this irresponsible, given that the United States has consistently had the biggest teen-pregnancy rate in the Western world. Others will look at the heroine's decision to not terminate her pregnancy as politically incorrect. But "Juno" isn't about passing off a message or taking a stand in the never-ending prochoice/prolife debate; it just looks at people and finds any crisis is much more manageable if you've got friends and family to back you up.
Ellen Page ("Hard Candy") plays Juno MacGuff, a quirky 16-year-old in the Midwest who's into horror movies and Iggy and The Stooges. (What you could call the Cristina Ricci role.) She finds, to her amazement, that she's expecting after having sex for the first and only time with her dweeby pal Paulie (Michael Sera). While her first impulse is to get an abortion, Juno has second thoughts while waiting in the clinic and decides to have the child. Her cheerleader friend, Leah (Olivia Thirlby), suggests she put it up for adoption, and to check the classifieds for potential parents. ("It's like totally legit!" she urges.)
Juno's ex-military dad (J.K. Simmons) and stepmom (Allison Janney) go along with remarkably little top-blowing, and soon Juno goes to meet with Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a yuppie couple who have been unable to conceive. Their lawyer draws up an adoption agreement that puzzles Juno, who asks: "Can't we just kick this old school? I send you the baby in a basket?"
The wise-ass dialogue that endlessly streams out of Juno's mouth comes courtesy of screenwriter Diablo Cody, best known for her tell-all book "Candy Girl: A Year In The Life Of An Unlikely Stripper," and her blog "The Pussy Ranch." Cody does have an ear for teen-speak, with some "wizard" one-liners, but she totally overdoes it. Juno's real-life situation is undermined by the fact that she comes off like a 3-D-but-cruder Bart Simpson — which sure gets old fast. And the idea that she's supposed to be quicker, cleverer and wittier than everyone else is undermined by the fact that, well, she got pregnant the first time she had sex. Doesn't take a genius to make sure that doesn't happen.
Far better than Page's performance are those of the supporting cast. Garner seems to have the neurotically perfectionist yuppie role, but she moves well outside the range of stereotype by film's end. Ditto for Simmons and Janney, who would be expected to be the dysfunctional parent types beloved by U.S. indie films and TV comedy but wind up being supportive and caring. The idea that your (divorced) parents may hold your life together rather than mess it up — now that's something we don't see in U.S. cinema every day, never mind the happy-ending pregnancy.