CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Backlash to the Backlash to the Backlash

Juno is a difficult creature to approach, if only because so much has been written about it that it is impossible to go into it without some sort of predisposition. I make no pretenses about this: I went in with the attitude that I would find something to grapple with on an intellectual level. I decided beforehand that, no matter how it worked on an emotional level, I would find something positive to say about it on a more technical level. I came out with comparisons to Ken Loach and Alfred Hitchcock. Allow me to explain.

Juno is told squarely from the perspective of the titular protagonist. As such, the film matures as our heroine comes of age. The early scenes with Rainn Wilson's drug store clerk and Olivia Thirlby's Leah give way to scenes with more mature and less quippy characters like Jennifer Garner's Vanessa and JK Simmons' Mac. The beginning is deliberately off-putting as we become accustomed to this world. The quippy nature of the dialogue early in the film reminded me in a way of the beginning of Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley. At the beginning of Barley, the characters speak with very thick Irish accents. In fact, the accents were so thick that I had trouble understanding what the characters were saying. As the film progressed, however, the accents faded towards more generic British accents, as the contested area of Northern Ireland became more British and less Irish. In both cases, the dialogue is deliberately off-putting as we enter a world that we are initially unfamiliar with. As the films progress, we become more accustomed to this world, but the situations also move closer to what we consider normal. In this way, Diablo Cody's annoyingly quirky dialogue fades to serious discussion of the pregnancy as Juno slowly grows out of her hipster persona.

Juno doesn't completely grow out of the persona, probably because she is surrounded by people who are or were hipsters. In Hitchcock's Rear Window, L.B. Jeffries and Lisa Fremont look out their window and see various images of themselves in the present and future. There are the newlyweds who barely leave the house, the social bachelor and his flirtatious female counterpart, the old maid, and the unhappily married Thorwalds. Each of these images play as potential situations for Jeff and Lisa to follow in their relationship. Similarly, Juno is faced with a number of options as a maturing hipster. Rainn Wilson's character of the drug store clerk is the defiant hipster. He won't sell out to The Man, and he quips just as much, if not more, than Juno. If Juno wants to stay just as she is, she will become the clerk, immature but more clever than everyone else. But nobody wants that.

Juno's dad, as played by JK Simmons, is a more ideal possibility. You can just tell by listening to him that Juno inherited her smart mouth from him. The nicknames he gives to his daughters (June Bug and Liberty Bell) show a spark that has, for the most part, faded into civil domestic life. He has given up parts of his hipsterdom, and in return he has a happy marriage of over a decade and a nice suburban family. He chooses his own road, but he knows how the game must be played.

Mark, as played by Jason Bateman, is a hipster posing as a normal guy. He's unhappily married to a yuppie, though he maintains his independence through his Herschel Gordon Lewis VHS tapes and his guitars. Though he originally finds himself happy in his marriage, Juno awakes his inner hipster, and he suddenly wants out. The film views the character turn negatively, as we find ourselves aligned with Juno is asking "Why are you doing this, you douche?" He is ultimately just another selfish hipster who is afraid of responsibility. He remains a possibility for Juno's future, even as Juno decides she doesn't want anything to do with him.

The most interesting possibility comes from Vanessa. The only reason I consider her in this is because of the first scene where we see her without Juno. As Vanessa and Mark decide on the color of the baby's room, we see Vanessa wearing a vintage Alice in Chains tee shirt. Though this could suggest any number of things, such as that she has raided Mark's closet for useless clothes while she paints, I would like to believe that this hints at a more lively past than we would otherwise envision for Vanessa. She, like the drug store clerk, is a negative possibility in the other direction. She is a former hipster who moved to the opposite side of the field when she decided that the hipster life wasn't for her. Though she eventually warms to Juno (or do we just warm to her?), she maintains that yuppie sensibility that plays as the exact opposite of Mark's hipsterism.

Juno is surrounded by these possibilities. By connecting with Paulie Bleeker, she seems to grow up and choose the same path as her father before her. But she's not completely grown up, and neither is the film. The romantic duet of "Anyone Else But You" is a more mature gesture than Juno would have made at the beginning of the film, but she is still singing a hipster indie song with Paulie. And just to remind us, in a very Hitchcock way, Jason Reitman gives us the track team running through the final scene. Continually used as a punchline, the track team is one of the most distinctively hipster elements of the film, as we are meant to scoff at their ridiculous uniforms. By inserting them into the final shot, Reitman reminds the viewer that though our heroine has matured, the rest of the world isn't quite as mature.

Juno didn't really connect with me. I found the strings trying to pull on my heartstrings too visible. Is it one of the best of the year? Not in a year when the sublime The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford gets little recognition. However, as teen romantic comedies go, this one has a lot more to it than the quips. It's a film easier to appreciate than really like, if only more people could appreciate its depth.

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