“They don’t make them like they used to” is a common saying when one is talking about old movies, usually from the Golden Age of Hollywood, or even the work of the Movie Brats from the early to late 70’s when the likes of The Godfather and Mean Streets ushered in an era of thought-provoking, darkly told narratives that pushed film into the realm of the mature and adult.
Juno made a splash at various film festivals in late-2007 before receiving a wide release, but in the space of the last decade, the type of movie that Juno is, a small independent feature that gained critical acclaim, a very profitable run at the box office and Award nominations, some of which it converted into well-deserved wins, has become something that we see less of.
As studios place their bets more on franchises, lower-budgeted horror and mid-budgeted R-rated comedies that they know are going to make a killing at movie theatres, the type of middle budgeted comedy-drama with a great script, great direction and a plethora of wonderful actors delivering wonderful words has become something that we see less and less of in our cinemas and more in the realms of television shows that receive backing from the likes of HBO or Netflix, or even in direct-to-streaming movies made by the streaming giant.
Admittedly Amazon Studios has kept pushing the boat a little, and has allowed the likes of The Big Sick to flourish and gain our attention, but as little as ten years ago a movie like Juno became a mini-pop cultural phenomenon that stole our hearts with an instant star-making turn from Ellen Page, as well as one of the most winning writing and directing teams to come from Hollywood in forever.
Jason Reitman had made waves only two years before with the darkly comedic Thank You For Smoking, and would continue to do so after Juno with the likes of Up in the Air and Young Adult, the latter also scripted by Cody, indicating that while Reitman was a chip of the old block, so to speak, in managing to craft wonderful movies with a comedic centre like his father, famed Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, but somewhat differently he had a more independent spirit, with his films being a type that manages to win hearts at film festival and score award nominations compared to the more mainstream, anarchic spirit of his father’s work.
The real star-making talent behind the scenes of Juno was Diablo Cody. A former stripper, who turned her experiences into the acclaimed memoir and blog Candy Girl: A Year in the life of an Unlikely Stripper, as well as a former Entertainment Weekly reporter, Cody’s script felt like it had walked out of the 80’s and into the Noughts. In fact, there is a smidgen of feeling running through Juno that almost reminds one of a John Hughes film from the era, but where sometimes Hughes’ movies could sell out their female characters or some of their themes for a conformist attitude, Cody’s script and story for Juno follows through its themes and ideas in a more emotionally tangled way, all without sacrificing its light tone, sense of humour and optimism.
At the heart of the film would be Ellen Page. Page had made waves thanks to X-Men III: The Last Stand where she portrayed Kitty Pryde (and unfortunately had to endure a deplorable attitude from its director) and the ultra dark thriller Hard Candy. Juno would end up being not only a star-making turn from the actress, but also a definitive one, and one which Page would make her own.
In lesser hands, the character of Juno MacGuff could have been annoying, or at least unrealistic. For a pregnant teenager, she handles her situation with good humour and intelligence, and immediately she is one of those teenagers from a Hollywood movie or television show who is probably way too wise before her years, and yet the film gets away with it thanks to a wonderful tone and attitude.
The combination of Cody’s screenplay, Page’s performance and Reitman’s direction made the film an instant success, managing to be quirky, comedic, dramatic and real. It has the feel of a wonderful indie movie, complete with folk soundtrack and the casting of Page, Michael Cera and Olivia Thirlby, yet has the brilliant stroke of casting Jennifer Garner, JK Simmons, Allison Janney and Jason Bateman in supporting roles.
Just when you think you have the film pegged, at least emotionally, Cody’s screenplay and Reitman’s direction pull the rug out from under you. Deciding to give birth to her child but to give it up for adoption afterward, Juno settles on handing her child over to Mark and Vanessa Loring (Bateman and Garner), a childless couple looking to adopt.
Right from the first moment we meet these two, the film is ready to subvert our expectations. There is legitimate sense of suspense in the air anytime Garner is on-screen, and throughout we come to enjoy Juno’s developing friendship with Mark. Mark is the cool one, Vanessa is the somewhat uptight character who we wait to reveal her true colours, and in the end we’ve played right into the film’s hands and it’s actually Mark who is the problematic character who plans to leave Vanessa because he isn’t comfortable being a husband or ready to be a father.
It’s one of the most brilliantly handled rug pulls to be accomplished in a movie. In fact, if anything it makes rewatching the movie an even more interesting experience knowing full well the turn the movie is going to take, while the moment Juno and Mark share a moving dance number becoming somewhat problematic and even, dare I say it, creepy in retrospect.
With the upcoming release of Tully, Reitman and Cody have now made it three or three, and along with their second collaboration Young Adult, have produced something of a loose trilogy that takes in themes of birth, growing up and motherhood. It may not have been intended to have been that done that way but all three movies, with Tully exploring motherhood itself, are brilliantly connected, not just in behind the scenes talent, but in themes and stories.
Ten years have not dulled Juno, and in fact, the film feels increasingly spikier and brilliant as the years go by. At the time the film attracted a small level of controversy for its stance on abortion. Pro-choice groups felt the film provided a commentary that abortion was wrong, while pro-life groups were annoyed that the film’s sole representative of their point of view was a character who proclaimed that “no babies like murdering”. Having said that, there were those of the pro-life side of the abortion argument who felt that since Juno does have the baby in the end, the film was actually pro-life, even though, and I have to say this once again, that argument was represented by a character holding a sign saying “no babies like murdering”.
If anything, the film has always been pro-choice, since it’s Juno who makes the choice to keep her baby even though she knows she had the option not to.
For a quirky, independent movie about teen pregnancy, it actually says something that both sides could see themselves reflected in it.
It’s hard to believe that the film is now just over a decade old, and yet it still is every bit as good today as it was then. In fact, watching it now makes one emotional for a time when a film like this could break out and get audiences into theatres. Now it would possibly get a limited release and go straight to Netflix, while the majority of teen movies have an R-rated vibe and go for sex jokes rather than wit and quirky atmosphere.
There are still great teen movies that can break free of those barriers: Love, Simon, for instance, was a truly wonderful film, as was The Edge of Seventeen. Love, Simon deservedly made an impact given its themes and was truly wonderful, but The Edge of Seventeen, a film with a script every bit the equal as that Cody wrote here, along with a career-best lead performance from Hailee Steinfeld, was seen by little to nobody and failed to ignite at the box office.
Teen films like it, or even just great so-called “dramedies”, which carry on the flame of Juno with themes that are resonant, pure and honest, while being dealt with in a humorous and emotional way are truly too rare.
After ten years since its debut, Juno still shines brightly, and that a new Reitman and Cody collaboration can make its way to movie theatres is something to be celebrated, but in many respects, I guess it’s true; they don’t make them like they used to, or they just don’t make them enough.